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“Getting things done”– in education

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

Part One

By Jane Hofmeyr

Why the West Rules – for Now is the provocative of the fascinating book I am currently reading.

The author, archaeologist and historian Ian Morris, uses an interdisciplinary approach and a wide range of sources to analyse, in a very readable form, the development of civilisations in the East and West and explain his conclusion captured in the title. The key concept he uses to explain advances in civilisations is ‘social development’, defined as “the ability of societies to get things done and shape their physical, economic, social and intellectual environments”.

This concept led me to think about its application to education and how well societies ‘get things done’ in this sector. This a vital issue for South Africa, because our schooling system is in a deep crisis with alarmingly low levels of pupil achievement. Government has acknowledged this with frank admissions of all the problems, released disturbing statistics – most recently in the results of the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) – and developed an action plan, performance targets and agreements with Ministers and officials.

South Africa is not alone in wanting to improve national performance. In many countries, education is at the forefront of political debate, and the reformers are looking for best practice in how to do so. ‘How’ is the issue – what approaches and strategies to use?

What strategy?

In terms of system governance, countries typically pursue more centralised control with top-down strategies or more decentralised, bottom-up ones. The respective merits and demerits of these two approaches are fundamental to debates among governance experts and education analysts. In developing countries, the capacity of government and society to get things done is always a significant consideration, and this is a key issue in any reform of our system. Would more centralised control by the national government improve education quality, or would more school-level autonomy?

The extent of national government control in South African education is limited by the 1996 Constitution, which gives concurrent or shared powers over the education system to the national and provincial levels. Basically, the national department has authority over policy, norms and standards and monitoring of the system, as well as universities and Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, while the provinces control the schools.

For many years now, the national Department of Education has been exasperated by the failure of some provinces to comply with and implement national policy properly, and improve pupil achievement. As independent schools know only too well, non-compliance with national policy affecting our schools is a very real problem in many provinces – especially with regard to the nonpayment of, late, or reduced subsidies for which many independent schools qualify, and unwarranted intrusion into our schools’ curricular and assessment freedom.


The glaring example of the Eastern Cape shows that that the national government has decided to exert central control over failing provincial school systems. In March this year, the Cabinet placed the Eastern Cape education department under administration, after officials admitted to having overspent R1.8bn, leading to the termination of contracts for 6 000 temporary teachers and the suspension of the school feeding programme and pupil transportation schemes.

However, as subsequent events showed, the power of the national level to exert its authority fully is limited if the province wants to resist it. Although Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga’s department took over the administration, and announced that it had restored the services and signed an agreement with the provincial education department (PED), a “communication breakdown” led the Minister to appeal to President Zuma to intervene (Business Day, 15/09/2011) because Eastern Cape officials were resisting the authority of the centrally appointed counterparts. Accordingly, President Zuma met with a heavyweight national team comprising the Ministers of Finance, Justice and Constitutional Development, Higher Education and Training, and Public Service and Administration to bolster Motshekga’s efforts and end the education crisis in the province. Afterwards, Zuma announced that the “biggest stumbling block of delineating roles, responsibility and accountability” had been removed.

The fact that the President and five Ministers had to be involved to end the deadlock illustrates the problem the centre has when a lower level of government wants to resist its control, because of strong vested interests protecting the status quo.


In marked contrast to the centralising moves in South African education, the British government has embarked on a decentralising approach to education reforms, devolving far more power to the school level and increasing the types of schools with new governance and funding arrangements. I explored these in June when I met with Department for Education (DfE) officials.

Michael Gove, the new Conservative Government Secretary for Education, using the lessons learned from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey 2009: “greater autonomy for schools; sharper accountability; raising the prestige of the profession and having greater control over discipline”, has introduced corresponding reforms. To ensure a more diverse supply of schools, the government is expanding the number of independent academies to replace comprehensive schools run by the Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and has allowed Free Schools, which are run by parents, charities or local groups. The UK school system now has a wide range of options, as illustrated in the diagram below.

The value of decentralisation has been highlighted in a recent analysis in The Economist of the lessons emerging from governments’ attempts to improve national performance in education. Reforming Education: The Great Schools Revolution (30/09/2011), cites the 2010 McKinsey report, How the World’s Most Improved Systems Keep Getting Better, which concludes that although there is no one template, four important themes emerge in education systems that have made significant improvement in pupil achievement: decentralisation (handing power back to schools); a focus on underachieving pupils; a choice of different sorts of schools; and high standards for teachers.

Two examples from the most improved systems that have employed these strategies are Ontario, Canada, and Poland. In Ontario in 2003, the Premier embraced ‘whole-system reform’ – but instead of directing reforms from the centre, the government encouraged schools to set their own targets and supported them with experienced teams. Schools with large numbers of immigrant children could apply for special help, and could choose whether to extend the school day to do this, or work longer with the slower pupils. Through regular inspections, schools have to show in that they are making progress. These reforms resulted in education funding increasing by 30% since 2004. The Ontario reformers also made a special point of gaining full public support for the reforms. Their success is debated, but Ontario has become a byword for decentralised, popular reform.

Poland also adopted a decentralising strategy, dismantling its centralised system which had channelled roughly half its pupils into an academic education and the rest into less-resourced vocational schools at an early age. Funding and administration are still controlled by state bureaucrats, but Principals have freedom to hire teachers and can choose which curriculum to use from a list of private providers. National examinations at the ages of 12-13, 15- 16 and 18-19, and supplementary tests each year, allow local authorities to monitor carefully how the schools are doing.

Where to South Africa?

In South Africa, with its mix of developed and developing worlds and limited resources to ‘get things done’, we should be looking both at more centralisation in some areas of education, and more devolved school-level power where appropriate.

Lack of capacity and inconsistent implementation in many provinces suggest that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) must exert its authority to set more national norms and standards in education policy, as allowed for in the Constitution, to assist the PEDs and ensure greater uniformity throughout the system. National norms and standards to guide provincial conditions for the registration of independent schools is a very good example.

But this will not be enough if provinces don’t follow the national norms. Compliance is the first step in demanding more accountability from the PEDs. Thus, the DBE also needs to adopt a stronger role in fulfilling its monitoring and evaluation function and hold the officials in the PEDs accountable for non-compliance and poor pupil achievement.

Simultaneously, as has been argued by a number of analysts in recent years, more authority to make decisions should be granted to wellperforming public and independent schools. In their case, much of the unnecessary control and red tape can be removed or reduced and more school-level decision-making allowed over their human and financial resources, and teaching and learning.

This would release government’s human and financial resources to concentrate on the worst-performing schools, both pressuring and supporting them to raise pupil achievement, while also assisting schools with average results to attain good ones. As in Poland, the long tail of underachievement in most of our public schools is what is pulling down the overall quality of our education system.


In analysing why civilisations wax and wane, Ian Morris argues that “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways of doing things” and that “history teaches us that when the pressure is on, change takes off ”.

The pressure is on now as never before in South African education, because our very national development is threatened by its failure. Change happens but, as we know from recent education history, it is not always positive. The DBE is committed to turning around our system but this will require strong political leadership, decisive action, mobilisation of the whole country behind quality learning and an openness to new ways of ‘getting things done’.

Category: Summer 2011

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