South African education: What can 20 countries’ experience teach us?

All children deserve a quality education. That one opinion unites South Africans of all political stripes and walks of life.

Financially, the government has thrown a good deal of weight behind the effort to improve the South African education system. In 2013, 21 percent of the national budget is devoted to education—a massive percentage by international standards. However, similar spending in the past has done little to drive results, and systemic dysfunction remains entrenched.  One of the more recent indicators, an average mathematics score of 13 among grade 9 students who sat for the 2012 Annual National Assessments, is telling.[i] But what is more telling than the results themselves was their predictability. In their outrageousness, they were just one more drop in an ongoing stream of disheartening news about how the system is failing our children.

New models to break old log jams in South Africa education

The bottom line is that rifts caused by the apartheid education system and a centuries-old history of segregation are too deep to be healed by any amount of spending—a fact the government recognizes. In July, the Department of Basic Education sought to establish partnerships with a range of players, including business, labour and NGOs, to look for more effective solutions via the National Education Collaboration Trust. Creating a contract schools sector should be front and center on these partners’ collective radar.

Dubbed South Africa’s “missing education sector” by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in an August 2013 report, contract schools are government funded schools that are managed by NGOs or private operators. [ii] The model, which exists in multiple countries around the globe, has evolved in response to the common challenge of providing children in low-income and disadvantaged communities with access to high quality schools.

Why look to an international contract schools model as a way to break out of South Africa’s current stasis? In no small part because of the track record of success these schools have established in 20 countries, including Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Pakistan, the US and Britain.

The work ahead won’t be fast or easy. To find a path forward, we need all hands on deck, pushing hard.

A South Africa model and lessons learned abroad

International models can’t just be grafted onto the South African education landscape, of course. We need to evolve our own contract school model – one that meets he needs of low-income and township communities, that capitalizes on our strengths, and that addresses specifically South African regulatory and economic requirements. And we need to heed learnings from other countries. Specifically, that improvement gains, even in countries that have achieved significant gains for a significant percentage of underprivileged learners, do not come about just because a contract is in place. They depend a great deal on establishing the right governance and accountability models for such schools and their operators.

However, this model has one overriding virtue: It has been tested, iterated and validated multiple times in multiple scenarios. In building a new sector to address long standing challenges, South Africa has the opportunity to extract from a wealth of hard-won lessons learned in other countries. We can capitalize on strengths of the model, while avoiding some of the missteps others have made.

I’ll offer just one such lesson here: One promise of the contract model is that it fosters school-level innovations. School leaders have the flexibility to design programs that address the very particular needs of their learners. But this flexibility has to exist within limits.  International evidence (in particular the history of the charter school movement in the US, where our organization has considerable experience) shows that two of the most critical keys to fulfilling the promise of contract schools are 1) clear governance requirements, and 2) an enforceable accountability framework based on student outcomes.

An ongoing series and a call for input

The CDE report makes a handful of recommendations about how to move forward. Covering the recommendations and lessons learned in a single post would be impossible. So, over the next few months, I’ll drill into some of the CDE’s recommendations and into key questions to be considered as we move forward.

As I kick the series off, I’d also like to issue an open invitation. One of the forgotten leaders of the early civil rights movement in the US, Bayard Rustin, perhaps captured the spirit of what I want to say best:  “We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers.” Please be our angelic troublemakers. Please use the comments section, Twitter and Facebook to share your questions, concerns and thoughts about the series and about the proposals we’re examining. We need your voices, inputs and thoughts.

The work ahead won’t be fast or easy. To find a path forward, we need all hands on deck, pushing hard.

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the possibility of building a strong contract schools sector in South Africa. Read more.

[i] Just two percent of grade nine students scored higher than 50 on the 2012 Annual National Assessments. “Do the maths, we’re facing a ‘national crisis.'” The Mail & Guardian, 03 Dec 2012, Bongani Nkosi, Victoria John.

[ii] The report, “The Missing Sector- Contract Schools: International experience and South African prospects,” was written and published by CDE. The report is based on five background research reports written for CDE as well as two workshops with leading experts. It provides a high level analysis of the sector as it’s evolved globally, and makes series of recommendations for incubating such a sector in South Africa. The report was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.