Contract schools in South Africa: Success depends on empowering the right operators

In a recent series of posts, I’ve explored how a new contract schools’ model could help South Africa address the ongoing challenges facing our education system. The posts have sought to describe:

  1. The potential for and benefits of designing a new contract-based school model that is funded by the South African government and managed by nonprofit school operators
  2. How the government might design an effective system of authorization and oversight that ensures that such independently managed schools are held accountable for results
  3. The need for contracts to establish a balance of operator-level freedoms and of accountability for performance

These topics, all of which touch on the macro-level rationale for establishing and governing a new sector, are vital. The first steps toward successfully establishing a new paradigm are 1) accepting the rationale behind it and 2) building an effective framework that encourages innovation within a well-designed framework of oversight and accountability.

But the desperate needs of our children will ultimately be met at the level of individual classrooms and schools…which means we need to go beyond rationale and frameworks to think about the details and realities of such massive change.

Picking winners: We need to find the right operators now, not later

We have an immediate, straightforward question to answer: Who should be allowed to operate such schools? Not every educator or administrator will or should be eligible. Relevant experience is required, both on the academic and operational sides of the equation. Operators will need the ability to hire and develop a strong educators, the ability to build strong relationships with the communities in which they operate, and the ability to handle all the administrative complexities of running schools. And if we hope to set the sector off in the right direction at the start, we need to establish up front how to identify and empower such candidates.

More than 20 years of experience in the US charter sector—one variant of the contract school model­—are relevant to this discussion. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) was established to empirically evaluate US education reform initiatives and student performance at the primary and secondary education levels. The organization is credited with doing the largest and among the best-designed studies of charter school performance to date.

Whether the first eligible contract school operators would emerge from this small pool is an open question, but identifying the characteristics that make them successful can help us begin to understand what qualities are shared by eligible school operators.

In the wake of its most recent study of charter school results, the organization offered one key piece of advice to the sector:

Get smart from the start. The quality of the sector at any point in time is largely determined by who is permitted to obtain a charter… [I]t is necessary to move beyond the assertion that it is hard to discern quality before a school opens and begin to build evidence about what plans, what models, what personnel attributes, and what internal systems provide the appropriate signals that lead to high-performing schools. A body of expertise in “picking winners” is vital to the long-run success of the sector. [1]

Why is this expertise so important? As the CREDO report notes, “charter schools, as they age or replicate into networks, are very likely to continue the patterns and performance set by their early years of operation, and that for most charter schools their ultimate success or failure can be predicted by year three of a school’s life.”

A pool of potential operators for contract schools already exists

If South Africa opts to pursue a contract school model, we will, of course, do so without the advantage of the “body of expertise in ‘picking winners’” so prized by CREDO. But we are not entirely in the dark. We have available a handful of candidates who come to the table with proven strengths. Among the South African providers who have established a strong reputation for (and experience with) managing schools effectively are some high-performing government schools, educational NGOs and members of the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition. Another interesting option includes a handful of international contract school operators such as ARK, which runs a range of projects in the UK, Southern Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

Whether the first eligible contract school operators would emerge from this small pool is an open question, but identifying the characteristics that make them successful can help us begin to understand what qualities are shared by eligible school operators. We can then develop the ability to consistently identify effective operators.

Which schools could be operated under a contract-school model?

Another tactical question we have to consider at the outset of this journey is equally straightforward: What schools should operate as contract schools?

Given three variables…

  1. that the whole purpose of establishing a new contract schools sector is to ensure that underserved learners in impoverished communities have access to affordable, high-quality schools
  2. that the model depends on independent operation of a government school
  3.  that the international evidence indicates that the schools which have the best results for students are typically newly established schools rather than turnaround scenarios

… I’d argue that, the best candidates are newly established public schools in an impoverished community. Implementing a contract schools pilot in a new school gives us the best chance to refine and adjust the model to ensure that, as we move forward to replicate and scale it, we understand the variables that will most likely enable us to maintain fidelity to a model that delivers the highest possible quality education to the greatest number of children.

The importance of a pilot period

In August, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) issued a report, “The Missing Sector”, which details international experience with contract schools and makes some recommendations around how to proceed with such a model in South Africa.[2] The report recommends that if we are to explore this option in South Africa, we proceed incrementally and by experiment. Identifying appropriate schools where this concept can be explored—and securing reputable private partners to manage these schools effectively—are crucial steps in establishing a new, high-quality sector. Only if we are able to deliver quality in a pilot program—and begin to understand the variables most important to ensuring quality—will the concept be worthy of larger scale rollout.

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


[2] 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 contract schools sector as it’s evolved globally, and makes series of recommendations for incubating such schools in South Africa. The report was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.