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Schooling reform is possible

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

lessons for South Africa from international experience

Earlier this year, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) held a Round Table on lessons for South Africa from international experiences of schooling reform.

The workshop was addressed by experts from four countries where significant schooling reforms have been implemented in recent years: Brazil, Ghana, the United States and India. It was also supplemented by a new McKinsey overview of schooling reform in 20 countries, as well as a World Bank review of African experience.

The Round Table was addressed by Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, and Bobby Soobrayan, Director General of Basic Education. Participants included more than 60 educational experts as well as business leaders and leaders of civil society. The international speakers were:

• Paulo Renato Souza, former Brazilian Minister of Education, and former Secretary of Education of the state of São Paulo, who outlined steps taken to improve public education in São Paulo;

• Dr Ato Essuman, former Chief Director of Education in Ghana, who described a major initiative to reform the Ghanaian education system from 2001 onwards;

• Tom Boasberg, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, who outlined a major initiative to improve schooling in the city; and

• Professor Anita Rampal, Dean of Education at the University of Delhi, who spoke about the introduction of a rights-based framework for public education in India.

Key insights from international experience

International experiences of schooling reform are varied, but a number of common factors emerged from the presentations. With the right leadership and approach, education systems can make significant gains from almost any starting point. Measurable improvement can be achieved in as little as six years. Success requires a sustained focus on key variables.

While minimum levels are essential, funds and resources are not enough in themselves to transform a schooling system. The quality of teaching and teachers is a central determinant of student performance. Teacher quality cannot be reduced to formal qualifications, which often have little impact on student results.

School leadership, notably by Principals, plays a key role, especially in motivating teachers and creating a culture of learning. Society needs to value the importance of teachers more highly, and teachers need to see themselves as professionals and behave accordingly. Incentive-based pay is essential.

There are groups and interests outside of government – especially parents and others in civil society – who have an interest in schooling reform and who can be mobilised in support of good school leadership, good teaching and improved student performance. Strategy and mechanisms of implementation are more important and urgent than endless policy development. The fundamentals of schooling reform are well known. The challenge is to take account of local context – politics, unions, and economics – and devise an effective approach that will deliver results.

South Africans reflect on international experience

South Africa does not exhibit an appropriate sense of urgency with respect to the country’s crisis in education. Despite comparatively high government expenditure, and very poor outcomes in terms of student performances, the severity of the situation is not sufficiently recognised.

The Brazilian experience should provide hope. In a society characterised by great inequality, and much larger numbers than South Africa, some years ago the President mobilised public sentiment and political will throughout a vast country. As a result of introducing incentives for teachers, professionalisation and a focus on student performance, the country has moved from being ‘bottom of world class’ to ‘the world’s fastest reforming system’.

The evidence from Denver is instructive. This city is only one of the many and diverse city and state experiments in schooling reform taking place throughout the United States. It shows decisively that improvement in outcomes is not correlated with aggregate expenditure, but rather with how resources are managed. The first major city to introduce a significant merit pay programme for teachers, it has led national thinking on how to make public, private and charter schools more competitive, and teachers much more effective.

Education in Africa

The Ghanaian experience shows that achieving education reforms requires administrative and leadership continuity, together with a sense of urgency and political commitment from the very top. An overview of African and other developing country experience summarised new evidence on why education systems in developing countries are performing poorly.

Funding is generally available but is inequitably allocated, both geographically and across income and ethnic groups. In addition, the funding ‘leaks’, with only 20 – 50% of the money reaching schools. Teacher absence and significant loss of instructional time are key impediments to learner performance. Spending is poorly correlated with results, with evidence showing very large disparities between test scores and public education spend in a range of countries. South Africa is an infamous example – performing poorly in international tests, and yet spending 5-6% of GDP on education. The key to improving education in Africa is to strengthen accountability. Three levels of interventions are needed to achieve this: information, school-based management and teacher incentives. Schooling reform in Africa is most effective when it starts from the ground up, and empowers those who are closest to learners, namely parents and communities. The lesson about the importance of teachers was strong and clear. No system can transcend the capacity and performance of its teachers. South Africans need to understand that the school is the point at which we convert inputs into outputs. If we don’t do that, we are not going to succeed.

Concluding remarks

The international evidence demonstrates that schooling reform is indeed possible. However, this requires resolve, leadership and commitment. South Africa needs effective management of the very large public education bureaucracy, as well as bold and effective political leadership. International experience demonstrates that success is not about having some grand plan at the beginning, but having a notion of what we can do first that will unleash a whole lot of other productive forces.

Continuity – of political and administrative leadership, policies and strategies for implementation – is vital. Differentiation is essential. Teachers, Principals and education officials all need to be incentivised, but this cannot be done in a uniform way. South Africa will not succeed if it continues to have teachers who are present only three days a week, but who remain employed. The rights of Principals to hire and fire, and of their superiors to fire Principals if necessary, should be reinforced.

South Africa needs a new social compact. A much wider set of social groupings is needed to support both the department and political leaders. Three international experts spoke at the Round Table about challenges surrounding the unions, but their political leaders were still able to move forward. National interests now need to trump minority interests. There are some promising developments, including centres of excellence (sometimes in unexpected places) in the public schooling system; the growth of low-fee private schools, which are more accountable to parents; and education projects largely funded by the private sector, which could be taken to scale.

However, these developments need to form part of an overall thrust, which South Africa does not yet have. So the country has to look for synergies, partnerships, and combining the public sector and market forces without ideological blinkers on either side.

Category: Summer 2011

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