“Getting things done”

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

In education – Part two

By Jane Hofmeyr

The first part of this article, carried in the last issue of Independent Education (“Getting things done” in education – Part one, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer 2011), took its title from Stanford University historian Ian Morris’s concept of ‘social development’ as the capacity of a society “to get things done”.1

Many governments have discovered, however, that education is one of the trickiest sectors to reform successfully and to do so, they often have to get things done differently.

In part one, I also referred to a recent analysis carried in The Economist.2 Here I will be looking at other promising areas of reform that the same article pointed to: diversity in types of schools and quality assurance and the relevance of these issues to South Africa’s education challenges.

Wider choice of schools

The Economist article authors argue that expanding choice of schools is by far the most striking of the four chief elements of school reform because it “concentrates minds on what kind of teaching is best, particularly in challenging places… a mass of data shows that both profit and not-for-profit innovations can work… [they] also offer the freedom to set working conditions outside the restraints of local authorities and the teachers’ unions, giving heads more capacity to tailor schools to the needs of their particular pupils.”

The United Kingdom (UK) has greatly expanded school choice.3 The variety ranges from community schools run by the local authority, which employs the staff, owns the land and buildings and decides on the admissions criteria, to voluntary-aided schools, which are mainly faith-based schools where the governing body employs staff and sets the admissions criteria. There are also academies, which are independently managed, set up by sponsors from business, faith or voluntary groups in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE) and the local authority.

Academies will grow because Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is turning the 200 weakest primary schools in England into academies, which will be placed under new management. The schools will be free to run their affairs unhindered by local authority control. Gove has also introduced ‘free schools’ that are state-funded but have considerable freedom over their curricula and finances. These schools are opening because of real, local demand from parents for a new or different type of education to benefit local children and their families.

Wide school choice in the US as well

The schooling landscape of the United States is equally diverse with independent, parochial (faith-based, usually Catholic schools), public, magnet and charter schools, home schooling and online learning.4

Home schooling is steadily increasing, with 1.5 million pupils in 2007.5 Typically parents choose home schooling for moral or religious reasons but also because they are dissatisfied with the instruction in state schools. Similarly online learning is growing and has acquired a new cachet with Stanford and other universities offering a full high school curriculum.6

Charter schools are set up independently by teachers, parents and others who desire better learning opportunities. These schools are state-funded but they are not ruled by the government regulations that apply to ordinary public schools and are free to create their own curricula. Magnet schools are public schools with a specific focus, such as science, technology or the arts.

Although the effectiveness of charter schools in the US is debated, The Economist concludes that on the whole, charter schools have brought a new dynamism to the challenge of improving education quality in the poorest communities.

In South Africa the independent school sector provides parents with a wide choice of schools, but the public sector does not. Its range is very limited to section 20 (most schools), section 21 (typically the ex-model C ones) and section 14 schools (public schools on private property). With the imperative of raising the quality of schooling, government should seriously consider some of the models above which are funded with public money.

Quality assurance

How to assure the quality of school education is a challenge faced by all countries. Standardised testing is a typical tool, as is school inspection. One of the best-known inspection agencies is Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) in the UK. It is an independent body headed by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and it reports “without fear or favour” to a parliamentary select committee.

When I visited Ofsted last year, I was interested to learn about its new differentiated approach. Inspection of schools is increasingly “proportionate to risk”: because the poorest performing schools present the greatest risk to overall pupil achievement in Britain. Ofsted now concentrates on them in its inspections, leaving the outstanding state and independent schools to get on with their good work without routine inspections, while good schools have less frequent inspections. This contributes to system improvement by releasing resources to target the weakest schools.

Ofsted has also simplified its original exhaustive and costly inspections: the inspection team has been reduced to two people and the length to two days (four in the largest schools). Ofsted makes recommendations for school improvement in its inspection reports and schools judged inadequate receive repeat visits termly or sooner until they improve.

In the case of independent schools, Ofsted has delegated its quality assurance authority to the Independent School Inspectorate (ISI), to quality assure the independent schools (some 1 500), which fall under the Independent Schools Council. The 1 000 schools that do not are directly quality assured by Ofsted.

I was taken with Ofsted’s definition of school achievement as “attainment and progress” and its tagline, ‘Raising standards, improving lives’.

Umalusi making important progress

In South Africa, Umalusi – the national quality assurer in the general and further education and training bands of the national qualifications framework (NQF) – has had the mandate to quality assure independent schools since 2001. In 10 years it has not yet conferred ‘full accreditation’ on any independent school – even the very best. However, it has recently piloted a programme for full accreditation and is refining its policy for quality assuring independent schools, so meaningful progress is being made.

Umalusi can learn from Ofsted. With Umalusi’s limited capacity to quality assure all independent schools timeously and efficiently, especially those that belong to no association, the best solution would be to delegate its quality assurance authority to an independent sectoral agency, as Ofsted has, and adopt the “proportionate to risk” approach. Once appraised as ‘high quality’, an independent school that continues to produce excellent results should be left to get on with its good work so that resources can be focused on poorly performing schools.

We don’t need NEEDU

What the independent school sector does not need is the latest development: a bill has come out to formally establish NEEDU (National Education Evaluation and Development Unit) as a quality assurance body for public and independent schools. There is no mention, however, about how NEEDU will be involved with independent schools and how it and Umalusi will function if they both have a quality assurance mandate for independent schools.

The quality assurance of public schools by NEEDU is urgent, but unnecessary and wasteful in the case of independent schools. They are not only quality assured by Umalusi but also have to pass a series of quality requirements around registration, Occupational Health and Safety Act compliance, subsidisation and public benefit organisation registration.

Developing quality teachers equipped for the rigours of the 21st century

I am convinced that there is much that South Africa can learn from other countries to find new ways to address our huge education challenges. Both developed and developing countries have much to offer, as was confirmed for me at the Education World Forum (EWF) that I attended in January in London. I heard Minister after Minister of Education from all over the world outlining their challenges, innovative approaches, successes and failures.

The Economist argues that “choice and decentralisation devolve more power to schools and harness the resources and expertise of the private sector and civil society”. New school models funded by public money and public-private partnerships in education to target specific challenges and alleviate government’s capacity constraints deserve the attention of our decision-makers.

But even if these were implemented, they would still not get to the nub of education reform: no system can be better than the quality of its teachers. The Ministers at EWF agreed that their greatest challenge is how to develop high-quality teachers able to handle new curricula and technologies that will improve learning for the demands of the 21stcentury.


1. Morris, I. (2010) Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of
History, and What They Reveal About the Future. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

2. The Economist (2011) ‘Reforming Education: The Great
Schools Revolution’, available at: http://www. economist.com/
node/ 21529014.

3. See, for example, http://www.direct.gov.uk/ en/Parents/
Schools learninganddevelopment/ChoosingASchool/

4. See, for example, http://www. education.com/profile/

5. Lloyd, J. (2009) ‘Home Schooling Grows’, available at:

6. Almeida, M. (2011) ‘Online High Schools Attracting Elite
Names’, available at: http://www.nytimes.com
/2011/11/20/education/ stanfords-online-high- school-raisesthe-
bar. html?pagewanted=all.

Category: Autumn 2012

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