Collaboration Schools: Improving the future for South African youth

In far too many regions of the world, a stark educational achievement gap still exists between rich and poor students. Students in the United Kingdom who are eligible to receive free school meals (FSM) are nearly twice as likely to fall behind their wealthier peers in reading by age 11. And in South Africa, those in the lowest income quartile – the majority of students in this region – often struggle with illiteracy and innumeracy while their wealthier peers receive an adequate education, allowing them to score higher on international assessments.

So, how do we begin to tackle an education issue that spans across so many different countries? For many, it begins with pulling together lessons learned from years of experimenting with innovative school models. Governments, policymakers and practitioners work to identify the best frameworks from both public and private school models from around the world, and then apply it to their own schools to make a change.

This is exactly what the government of the Western Cape in South Africa did to achieve better outcomes for all its students. Their solution: Collaboration Schools.

Collaboration Schools: A chance at a better education

In the Huffington Post blog When Schools Fail: Taking Radical Steps To Improve Education, Dean Villet, Country Director, South Africa, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Susannah Hares Executive Director, Ark Education Partnerships Group describe the way Collaboration Schools arose to transform South Africa’s approach to public education:

“Collaboration Schools launched in the Western Cape in January 2016. Five schools were paired with three non-profit ‘school operating partners’ who are accountable to the government for raising student achievement at a sustainable cost. The schools are in some of the most challenging communities in the province, and have been underperforming educationally for many years. This rightly prompted Premier Zille and Minister Schafer to recognize that the time had come for a more radical approach: something new and different had to be done. To accept the status quo would be to fail another generation of young people.”

This solution did not develop simply or easily. The idea of Collaboration Schools was born through the lessons learned from other schools around the world. The authors offer five takeaways that were key in creating this new model:

One. Don’t go in lightly. This is a difficult concept to get right. There will almost certainly be opposition from those who challenge that a PPP model, believing it will lead to an outsourcing of public education to the private sector. In fact, PPPs should be a way for states to insource expertise and funding from the private sector, while retaining governments’ crucial roles of regulator, quality assurer, financer and ultimately guarantor of a quality education for every child.

Two. What’s in a name? It is not the label of an academy, a charter school or a Collaboration School that makes the difference. It is the quality of school leadership, teaching and management that really matters. Governments must decide how the commissioning process will be managed to ensure that organizations selected to run public schools have strong managerial capacity, the right leadership, and sound teaching and learning strategies that will ultimately result in improved educational quality.

Three. More public than private. Collaboration Schools are public schools. Academies are public schools. PPP schools should be held to account in the same way as other public schools. Operating partners should provide regular and reliable data, and be subject to the state’s inspection and monitoring frameworks. Governments need to be clear about what the consequences are for poor performance and be ready to implement those should targets not be achieved.

Four. Build an ecosystem of operating partners. No single operating partner can or should run a public schooling system. A well-structured PPP program can create a healthy ecosystem, where operating partners compete with each other, held accountable by parents and communities, to deliver better and better results for children. Governments need to find ways to attract a range of providers with different talents and innovations into the system, and to create the opportunities for learning between these organizations to take place. 

Five. Grow slowly, grow wisely. Running great schools in tough communities is difficult. It takes time and investment to build up strong expertise and capabilities in school leadership, teaching and learning, community engagement, curriculum, assessment and so on. School operating partners will make mistakes and will need time to get things right. Trying to scale too quickly risks giving the wrong operating partner more schools. Governments need the capability and the power to terminate the contracts of underperforming operating partners, whilst encouraging successful partners to grow slowly and strategically.”

By finding a solution that works for students in the Western Cape, we are revolutionizing the way families in South Africa experience public schools. We are starting a movement for better outcomes for all students, regardless of their background.

Improving the lives of students

By finding a solution that works for students in the Western Cape, we are revolutionizing the way families in South Africa experience public schools. We are starting a movement for better outcomes for all students, regardless of their background. In the words of Villet and Hares: “We are changing the nature of the conversation about what’s possible for children from poor communities.”

It won’t be easy and there will likely be lessons learned along the way. But to do nothing, the authors say, “could be the biggest mistake of all. Every child has the right to a quality education – governments must be bold and explore multiple pathways to deliver that for all the children in their care.”