As a legacy of apartheid, public schools in South Africa are divided into two distinct ‘quality humps’. The big hump encompasses poor-quality schools – almost all historically black. The small hump is made up of good-quality schools – almost all formerly white. While the overall quality of education has improved a bit, patterns of inequality have not shifted since 1994. Public schools in affluent areas serve the richest 20% of children, while the remaining 80% are served by poorer schools with minimal resources.
South Africa’s rate of investment in education ranks among the highest in the world and the majority of our corporate social responsibility and philanthropic funding goes towards the education sector. Despite considerable investment in education, international comparison tests show that a student learning in South Africa lags behind much poorer countries in Africa. This poor performance – and the gap between the rich and poor – will continue to widen until there is greater equity in the delivery of quality public education.
Poorer children often lack the nutritional, linguistic and cognitive foundations for learning. Additionally, schools serving these learners lack the social capital available in more affluent schools where the wealth, connections and input of parents – particularly those serving on School Governing Bodies (SGBs) – translate into a wide range of advantages for both schools and learners.
If we continue with the status quo, we can forecast with reasonable certainty that:
The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.
Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.
There is political commitment to improving equity in educational outcomes; however, there are few institutional mechanisms for achieving it, other than slightly preferential per-learner government funding provided to lower-quintile schools (1–3). This leads to significant inefficiency in the allocation of public funds, with markedly lower outcomes for poorer learners, despite equal or even preferential funding.
At PSP schools, School Operating Partners (SOPs) and non-profit organisations specialising in education delivery help public schools pursue high-quality education by focusing on building capacity, accountability and flexibility.
If dual outcomes of greater educational equity and efficiency are to be achieved, financing mechanisms must be accompanied by institutional changes that significantly improve the quality of education for poorer children.
These changes are unlikely to be achieved through a top-down circuit and district management improvement alone, and require systemic changes to our education system. The latter can only be achieved, on a large scale, through structural changes that fundamentally shift the current dynamics of under-resourcing and under-performance in schools.
The biggest route to sustainability will be the costs saved by having fewer children repeat grades. Grade repetition has cost us billions of rand over the years. If this wastage can be stopped, more money will be available to improve the quality of education.
There are other long-term funding possibilities. For example, all private companies in South Africa have statutory obligations to commit funding to socio-economic development. This model provides a way of ensuring that these funds are used effectively and are well monitored.
Beyond the reach of philanthropy and corporate social investment, we need the government and National Treasury, in particular, to get behind the programme, both publicly and financially. Not only will this reinforce the sustainability of the model for improved learner outcomes, but it will also lead to significant economic savings for the government.
When implemented effectively, PSP helps address challenges in the public education system in the following ways:
1. Empowering parents in their governance role
Public School Partnerships are built around parents and empowering them to fulfil their governance role. In wealthier schools, parents with significant financial resources are often part of the SGB and help to guide and run the school. Parents at no-fee schools seldom have the same resources available to them. This is where the skills brought by non-profit education support organisations empower SGBs and their schools to reach their full potential.
2. Educators are supported and empowered to teach
Non-profit education support organisations work with schools to enable educators to teach in challenging conditions through professional development, classroom support and teaching materials. With a strong focus on instructional leadership, principals are given tools to navigate the challenge of managing under-resourced schools to attain quality learner outcomes.
3. Establish an institutional mechanism for greater equity in education
Given the polarised income distribution in South Africa, independent schools that are not state-subsidised exclude the poorest 40% of children. With a focus on no-fee paying schools, PSP is an important mechanism for achieving greater equity in educational outcomes.
After several years of sustained work in a pilot phase, we have the first evidence that PSP schools are now on a different trajectory from when they started. At primary school level, the most reliable measure remains the cohort comparison of Grade 3s, compared to the Grade 6 scores in comparable assessments.
These positive changes suggest that profound shifts in school dynamics are underway and should become more pronounced over time.
Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.