A tale of three schools in the country’s education system

Phillip Methula, Social Investment Specialist |

In a National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) report published in April 2013, Dr Nick Taylor concluded that there are two kinds of teachers in South Africa’s school system currently influencing it in a negative way: “those who can’t” and “those who won’t”. Both have significant implications for learners and their futures and, consequently, our future as a collective…

To better understand education and the challenges and opportunities within the sector, we arguably need to understand both our teachers and their learners better. The NEEDU report of April 2013 is a helpful starting point for this, identifying two “categories” of teachers we should all be far more concerned about: “those who can’t” and “those who won’t”.

The former is a reference to teachers who are unable to deliver quality teaching to learners because they lack the necessary skills to do so (e.g. leadership and management, pedagogy, content knowledge). This skills deficit ultimately translates into poor learner development and performance – with a large grouping of these teachers creating underperforming schools.

In contrast, “those who won’t” are teachers who simply don’t have the will to do their jobs. Again, a disproportionately high ratio at schools with weak management and leadership translates into dysfunctional schools.

There is, however, a third category of schools in the public sector that produce high performing learners and usually have highly functional leadership and management systems, as well as good learner performance. We have to find a tangible way to replicate these and move underperforming and dysfunctional schools towards these. This is especially important in the context of the resources available.

One of the key challenges for social investors is the question of how limited resources can be used to make measurable and sustainable social impact in the lives of beneficiaries. In 2017, South Africa’s total corporate social investment spend was R9.1 billion[2], of which just less than half was allocated to education. This amount is miniscule compared to the Department of Basic Education’s budget of R223.8 billion for the 2017/2018 financial year. Given this, if social investors are to make significant impact in education, they must make strategic choices. These choices relate to the three types of schools available to them to invest in.

As outlined above, there are three broad categories of schools in the country’s public system based on their functionality. The first set of schools – underperforming schools – are willing to improve learner performance but they lack the capacity, knowledge and expertise to do so. These schools often benefit through the mainstream development approach of NGOs and other development agencies providing assistance to target beneficiaries. This approach works well provided that quality support responds to real needs. That being said, funders tend to walk away from these schools after one to three years when they feel their goals have been accomplished – with many such schools then slipping back to underperforming status as a result, as gains have not been sufficiently consolidated.

The second category of school – those without the will to perform – are a major problem both for government and social investors. These dysfunctional schools that have no effective managers and leaders, and they are found throughout the country. Based on Tshikululu’s experience over the past 20 years, it is extremely difficult to enact real, sustainable change in dysfunctional schools. Without the authority and mandate that the government enjoys, only rare examples of success can be found. Social investors should thus give these schools a wide berth when it comes to support.

The last group of highly functional public schools are often treated as the Cinderellas of the school system by government and social investors. They are generally quintile four or five fee-paying schools. Given their socio-economic status, these schools are considered capable of “fending for themselves”. However, the usual practice of excluding them from all forms of additional support is not a prudent one. Instead, social investors need to think about different types of additional support. One of Tshikululu’s clients demonstrates what this might look like in practice.

In 2007, Tshikululu, in consultation with one of its clients, developed an education intervention strategy to address the challenge around quality matric maths passes (60% and above) among black learners (Africans in particular) in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations. The programme focused on supporting and strengthening mainly public schools that were not only admitting large numbers of black learners but also enabling those learners to obtain quality passes in maths. Instead of taking a “top-down” approach, the intervention gave these schools an opportunity to design and implement programmes according to their particular needs on condition that they would demonstrate an improvement in quality maths passes for black learners.

The initiative was rolled out nationally in 67 high-performing secondary schools and across all quintiles. In 2014 an external evaluation report showed how the intervention had directly contributed to substantial improvements in the quantity and quality of black learner passes in the majority of the schools on the programme. Last year’s matric results saw the 67 schools achieve a 37% average quality passes in maths. This was well above the 7% quality pass rate obtained in maths nationally. Perhaps most importantly, the 2014 evaluation of the programme showed that participating schools maintained their performance over many years while performance at similar (control) schools had weakened. Based on the positive outcomes of the initiative, there are plans to launch the second phase of the programme in 2020. This phase will be based on a revised strategy that Tshikululu is currently developing. It has been informed by lessons learnt over the past 10 years of implementation.

In conclusion, assessing the functionality of schools is the very first step that every responsible social investor should take. Dysfunctional schools should be avoided or approached with extreme caution. Underperforming schools should be assisted, but care must be taken to target specific gaps that need attention to strengthen functionality and performance overall. The growth and development of these schools should be closely monitored so that support is withdrawn only once they’re ready. Highly functional schools should be given their deserved space to do things they know best to improve learner development and performance. By taking a stratified approach, social investors can tailor their activities to ensure strategic and measurable social investment, regardless of the target population.