Op-ed: Maths teaching in SA adds up to multiplying class divisions

24 October 2013. Ann Bernstein, Jeff McCarthy and Rebecca Oliphant for the Mail and Guardian. Read this article on the M&G website.


This article is based on a report by the CDE: “MATHEMATICS OUTCOMES IN SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLS: What are the facts? What should be done?” Read more about the report and find the report itself here.


The teaching of mathematics in South African schools is among the worst in the world. In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) showed that South African learners have the lowest performance among all 21 middle-income countries that participated in the study. A recent Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) report further underlined the issue in its finding of rapid increases in enrolments in private extra mathematics classes, which was partly in response to poor teaching in public schools.

Such supplementary efforts fail to address the wider deficiencies in mathematics education. Vast improvements in this area of the public schooling system are vital to South Africa’s future socioeconomic prospects — for the learners as well as the development of the country.

In this article, we summarise two specially commissioned CDE reports. They are independent studies of the state of schooling in South Africa as of early 2013 by university-based experts Nicholas Spaull and Charles Simkins. With access to separate but corroborating data, the two academics arrive at much the same ­disconcerting conclusions.

Mounting indicators on school performance and teaching reveal largely unacknowledged poor teaching of mathematics in the great majority of schools. Poor teaching competencies and, by extension, learner results will not be quickly remedied.

Yet mathematics is a key requirement not only for entry into higher education, but also for most modern, knowledge-intensive work. South Africa’s development as a knowledge economy depends partly on improving the teaching of mathematics and numeracy.

Furthermore, South Africa’s extremely high youth unemployment, now at 50%, is closely linked to the quality of schooling — numeracy and mathematics competency in particular.

To appreciate the scale of mathematics schooling deficiencies and the challenges that lie ahead, it is best first to put learners’ and teachers’ competencies into an international context.

International context
International studies often show that South Africa has the worst educational outcomes of all middle-income countries that participate in cross-national assessments of educational achievement, especially in mathematics. We also do worse than many low-income African countries.

Timss, an international standardised test for mathematics and ­science, is intended for grade eight. However, in South Africa it was decided that the tests were too difficult for our grade eight learners, so in 2011 only grade nine learners wrote the test.

Of 42 countries, only Botswana and Honduras also tested grade nine rather than grade eight learners. Average mathematics competencies for South African grade nines on the standardised test were closest to those of Honduras and Morocco, but only just over half as good (in terms of absolute scores) as Russia.

When dividing South African schools into different sectors, the independent schools’ grade nine learners did much better than the average, but were still just under 90% of the average Russian grade eight mathematics achievement —although there are questions about the sample used for South African independent or private schools, which likely hide the good performances of the better of them.

The government has begun to accept that there is a crisis in education that requires urgent intervention. Yet its extent and depth is often underestimated in favour of reports of “progress” (see for example the August 2013 Development Indicators 2012 report of the presidency).

One of the most important factors limiting the quality of mathematics education is the poor quality of our teachers, and numeracy and mathematics teaching in particular, especially at lower grade levels. However, when looking at inequalities in South Africa, there is significant disparity. Although South African mathematics teachers in quintile five (the richest areas) schools can nearly compete with the average Kenyan mathematics teacher, the bottom three quintiles (nearly two-thirds of the population — probably reflective of the average rural area and small towns and most townships) do slightly worse than Lesotho and Zambia.

Unlike South Africa, Lesotho and Zambia are lower-income economies, and are far from South Africa’s level of economic modernisation. Most of the countries with similar results to South Africa have a much lower per capita spending on schooling.

Countries performing much better than South Africa, such as Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, have per capita gross domestic products that are only a small fraction of South Africa’s and, interestingly, also have a high proportion of their learners attending low-fee private schools.

National evaluations
The international comparisons show that South Africa is performing poorly but to see another side of the crisis one must look at national evaluations.

In data collected in 2007, the majority of grade six teachers in South Africa could not answer a question that their learners ought to be able to answer based on the grade six curriculum. Obviously it is almost impossible to teach what you do not know. The accumulated learning deficits seem to reach a decisive point after grade nine, when there are high dropout rates from South African schools.

Although there are questions about the reliability of the annual national assessments for grade nine mathematics, for now we can observe that less than 5% of learners achieved 40% or more in mathematics. Leaving aside the precision of these assessments, even if the situation is only half as bad as they reflect, it can be seen that mathematics teachers in grades 10, 11 and 12, in the run-up to the national senior certificate (matric), are expected to make up for large deficits.

Thus, it is not surprising that there are huge learner dropout rates in grade 10, with fewer learners making it through to the matric examinations over time. This partly accounts for the slight improvements in the matric maths pass rate in recent years: weaker potential candidates are pushed out of the system before taking the exam.

The results of the matric examinations are, therefore, somewhat distorted. Only 50% of pupils who start school will make it to grade 12, only 40% of those who start school will pass matric, and only 12% of those who start school will qualify for university. The forcing-out of weaker learners before they reach grade 12 automatically inflates the matric pass rates, because a smaller and better-quality fraction writes matric than in the past.

The emphasis on matric also leads to a misperception about where to target interventions in the system. The department of basic education as well as many nongovernmental organisations and private sector interventions have tended to focus on the secondary school level, especially on matric outcomes. Yet much evidence shows that the best way to raise achievement is to focus on the primary school level. The learning deficits children acquire early on hinder their ability to learn in later years. As time goes on, children fall further and further behind, until catching up is almost impossible.

Catching up?
The 2011 Timss showed that South Africa performed worse than any other middle-income country in maths. The average South African grade nine learner is two years’ learning behind the average grade eight learner from 21 other middle-income countries in mathematics (and 2.8 years behind in science).

How does one make up such deficits? Teacher competency is an issue. There is also a major problem with teacher complacency, and this is linked to the ways in which many teachers are appointed — often not on merit. One aspect of this lack of attention to merit is how teachers evaluate themselves. Spaull observes: “In the recent Timss 2011, 89% of South African grade nine teachers felt ‘very confident’ in teaching mathematics.” This is in stark contrast with teachers in Finland (69% very confident), Singapore (59%) and Japan (36%) — the best performing countries.

This perception indicates that, in reforming mathematics teaching, we are likely to encounter resistance from teachers. Why should they want to improve and undertake retraining, for example, if they believe they are already doing a good job? Remedial interventions will have to bear this attitudinal challenge in mind.

Based on this evidence, the CDE has developed four points that must be borne in mind in addressing South Africa’s numeracy and mathematics schooling challenge.

● Improving mathematics teaching and learning in public schools will not happen fast, but must begin in earnest as a matter of urgency;

● Poor mathematics and numeracy in public schools is likely to accelerate private schooling growth and enrolment in private extra mathematics lessons;

● If South Africa is to be realistic about having a knowledge economy and creating more and better jobs, it will require a sustained focus on teacher and teacher-training enhancement, particularly in mathematics teaching, which — given its scale and current attitudes — will likely take a decade or more to achieve significant results; and

● In the interim, it is likely that we will have growing numbers of innumerate young people, and a majority of young South Africans could be unqualified for many types of white-collar work (assuming less than 30% in mathematics in grade nine roughly translates into such a status).

New roles for business and markets
Government has important challenges in maths schooling and reform in the public sector is vitally important — especially performance management, without which it is hard to see significant improvements on scale.

But what is the role of business? It is important for business to examine corporate social investment interventions and priorities in the light of this daunting ­evidence of system dysfunction. What does it mean for privately funded interventions?

Inevitably there will be debates on appropriate roles, and whether, for example, corporate social investment has ventured too far into what should be the government’s responsibilities.

There are big questions on the table. Are its efforts merely “band-aids” on a dysfunctional system or genuine reform? Would a new strategic approach bear greater fruit?

But, aside from corporate social investment , what is the role of entrepreneurs, markets and companies?

To some extent this question has already been answered in practice at a micro-scale by entrepreneurs and some companies actively involved in the schooling sector — for example, through the further growth of ­private schooling in poorer communities, through privately run distance learning, and the rapid rise of private extra maths lessons.

However, at a macro-level business as a whole has an interest in promoting alternative, market-driven ­models of schooling on a wider scale.

In a context of extreme system malfunction of the public sector, the growth of the private sector in schooling for poorer South Africans will have beneficial consequences.

The growth of a sector of schooling in the country with greater accountability, with the freedom to experiment with new approaches to affordability and quality, should be encouraged and promoted.

Quality is of course a challenge in this growing private-schooling sector as well, and new innovations are ­taking place that deserve support.

In addition, business could start experimenting with new approaches for possible adoption within the public system.

The basic issue here is how a highly centralised, essentially 19th-century model of schooling can engage with and use entrepreneurial actors, services and technology to help to improve outcomes in South Africa’s schooling.

Questions here include: Does every school need a maths teacher? Why not think of groups of schools using a maths teaching company or nongovernmental organisation? How can information technology be adapted to improve quality teaching and learning in South Africa’s schools? Private sector experimentation in collaboration with the public sector is what should be encouraged here.

Looking to market forces, such as introducing best-practice management systems from the private sector or importing digital training technologies both for teachers and learners, and/or importing the world’s best teacher trainers, as recently suggested by South Africa’s deputy president, could be good places to harness market dynamics to help in improving South Africa’s education system.

Ann Bernstein is executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, Jeff McCarthy is the centre’s education programme and research director and Rebecca Oliphant its research and programme co-ordinator. This is an edited extract from the centre’s summary of specially commissioned research papers from academics Nic Spaull and Charles Simkins. The full summary, and both the academic papers, can be found on the centre’s website: www.cde.org.za

Schools with enforceable contracts offer hope to poor

20 August 2013. Ann Bernstein and Jeff McCarthy for Business Day. Read this article at BDLive.


Click to enlarge.

BETTER quality schooling for the vast majority of South Africa’s poor is one of the most important priorities facing the country. Most of the time, attention is focused on how to reform public schooling, obviously an issue of vital national importance.

However, the country’s efforts to reform schooling have had an unnecessarily narrow focus. They have largely ignored a major international trend that could expand the available options for quality schooling, especially in poor communities. It could be said that South Africa currently has a “missing sector” when it comes to schooling provision.

Across the world in developed and developing countries the provision of schooling is being diversified and decentralised. In many cases this has led to partnerships between government and others.

Analysis of the range of models that create diversity in schooling provision for the poor reveals that they can deliver forms of schooling as least as cheaply as the public sector, and often of better quality. These schools are labelled differently — charter schools, concession schools, academies — but they involve a contract or agreement between the state and private actors who run the schools with public funds in return for specified performance outputs.

The World Bank has identified over 20 countries where contract schooling takes place. Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) research assessed the evidence in several countries. In the developed world examples include US charter schools, Britain’s academy school programme and similar Swedish education reforms. Prominent developing world examples include Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Pakistan.

The US evidence is complex, with new studies appearing frequently. In several large cities, charter schools are more than a quarter of all public schools. These schools are open to all who apply and they may not charge for tuition. Most charters are not-for-profit organisations started by groups of teachers, parents, community groups or others. In general, charter schools are schools of choice — pupils and teachers choose to go there, there is no compulsion. Like similar schools in the developing world, control over hiring and firing, curriculum and discipline are decentralised to the schools. The evidence is that charter school pupils perform as well as or better than government schools in maths and reading, controlling for other influences, especially in poorer areas.

Evidence on the effect of contracting and public-private partnerships on schooling quality in the developing world is again complicated but largely positive. Fe y Alegria (FyA for short, and in English “Faith and Joy”) is a church-based Latin American organisation that provides preschool, primary, secondary and technical education programmes in poor communities. There have been many evaluations of learner performance at the FyA schools compared to public schools in Venezuela and Peru. They point to the better performance of FyA — this is particularly impressive as this large organisation tends to cater to disadvantaged communities.

In Pakistan, the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) is a regional schooling initiative where the private sector contributes to the management of public resources devoted to supporting largely private schools for the poor. According to a 2010 report from the Asian Development Bank, the PEF has been “extremely successful due to the combination of private sector efficiency and public sector funding. This combination has resulted in better learning outcomes, fewer school drop outs, less absenteeism among teachers and reduced truancy among students.”

While each country has tailored the model to suit its regulatory and legislative regimes, there are three key lessons for successful contract schools. The school must have autonomy to decide how it will deliver quality schooling; the right to “hire and fire” all staff is a non-negotiable; and strong oversight by the regulatory authorities is essential, with this oversight focused on student performance and the political will to fix any school failing its students or shut it down.

Common features emerge from CDE’s case studies. Contract schools are often established in under-served, disadvantaged and low-income communities, thus expanding choice and improving access to quality education for poorer people. They introduce innovative teaching techniques as they are able to move away from the bureaucracy that stifles innovative practices in the public sector. Contract schools can have a positive effect on public education, raising the standard through their demonstration effect and through competition for students.

Currently South Africa offers public funding for registered private schools (subsidies for low-fee schools); and private funding for publicly managed schools (corporate social responsibility investments and “adopt-a-school” programmes). What we do not have is non-governmental (including not-for-profit) management of public schools, using public funds and subject to performance contracts.

Introducing contract schools could provide a laboratory for the schooling system. Their autonomy could facilitate innovation and experimentation with better ways of schooling, and encourage international best practice relevant to all of South Africa’s schools.

Piloting contract schooling in South Africa will require grappling with two questions:

• How can the model be adapted for South African circumstances: what types of school should be eligible, what autonomy is desirable and achievable and what funding would the government provide?

• How will contract schooling be implemented, given corruption and weak capacity within and around the government, especially in relation to “outsourcing”?

We suggest that a competent new public authority for regulating contract schools be established. Such a body is critical for overseeing these schools and increasing the chances of the country establishing a successful contract schools sector. This authority (or regional authorities) should include representatives from government, independent educational institutions, the private sector and the auditor-general’s office.

The government is central to the process, but operationalising contract schools should be inclusive and multi-stakeholder in nature. South Africa already has a wealth of expertise outside the public schooling system and this should be harnessed to develop contract schools.

Critics fear that school choice programmes increase inequality. The evidence demonstrates the contrary. Most contract school sectors focus on poorer people and trying to improve the quality of their education. Others ask if contract schools would divert attention away from improving public education. The evidence is that these schools would concentrate attention on enhancing the quality of education available to the poor, often in communities where there is little or no access to high quality education options. Such schools could have a demonstration effect on how public schooling in poor communities could be improved.

Contract schooling is not a panacea, nor are all such schools great performers. The chances of success improve greatly if the right operating environment is created, contracts deal with the essential issues relevant to pupil performance, and failing schools are closed down. Contract schools could become an important new contributor to building a South Africa where people’s talents and abilities, rather than where they live or how much their parents earn, determines their future.

• Bernstein and McCarthy are with the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

A new kind of school could benefit poorer South Africans

6 August 2013.

This article is based on a report by the CDE: “THE MISSING SECTOR: Contract schools – international experience and South African prospects”. Read the report or executive summary here.

The need for education reform is intensifying in South Africa. There is little disagreement that we are failing most (especially poorer) children by giving them sub-standard schooling. Against this background, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) today releases a new research report, THE MISSING SECTOR: Contract schools – international experience and South African prospects.

“SA’s efforts to reform schooling have had an unnecessarily narrow focus, largely ignoring an international trend of importance especially for poorer communities”, says Ann Bernstein, executive director of CDE.

Across the world the provision of schools is being diversified and decentralized and new partnerships being formed. These schools are labelled differently – charter schools, concession schools, academies – but all involve a contract between the state and private actors.

The ‘missing sector’ in South Africa are public schools managed by private operators who receive public funds in return for specified performance outputs.

Examples of these schools exist in over 20 countries, according to the World Bank. The CDE report focusses on US charter schools, Britain’s academy school programme and similar Swedish education reforms. In the developing world it examines initiatives in Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Pakistan.

“Contract schools are essentially an opportunity for governments and parents to tap into private expertise and hold it to account,” says Bernstein.

Contract schools are often established in under-served, disadvantaged and poor communities. They expand choice and improve access to quality education for poorer people. Freed from red tape and bureaucracy, they can innovate. “In time, contract schools can have a positive impact on public education, raising the general standard for schooling through their demonstration effect and through competition for students.”

The contract school concept constitutes a new kind of partnership: Government provides funding, support and clearly defined goals, while the private providers introduce innovative ways of delivering schooling to lift the quality of education in the public sector, particularly that available to the poor. It makes school managers accountable for performance.

The Asian Development Bank referred to the Pakistani project studied by CDE as, “…extremely successful due to the combination of private sector efficiency and public sector funding.”

Bernstein says political will is vital for the programme to be piloted, but thinks the time may be right: Both national and provincial treasuries are looking for ways to get value for money in schooling expenditure, and the NDP has called for greater diversity in schooling.

“South Africa has public schools. We have public funding for registered private schools (subsidies for low-fee schools); we have private funding for publicly managed schools (corporate social responsibility (CSR) investments and ‘adopt-a-school’ programmes). What the country does not have are private or non-governmental (including not-for-profit) management of public schools,” says Bernstein.

Introducing contract schools could provide a laboratory for the schooling system as a whole. Their autonomy could facilitate innovation and experimentation with better ways of schooling and encourage international best practice relevant to all SA’s schools, especially those serving the poor.

The report also examines South Africa’s legal and regulatory environment to understand what policy advocacy might be required to accommodate their proposals. Bernstein confirms it is likely that we will need legislative reforms if contract schooling is to move beyond a piloting phase.

Other potential challenges raised in discussions with experts and stakeholders included capacity and corruption within the public sector. A competent public authority is critical for overseeing school contracts. It is also vital to mitigate potential corruption in the private sector. A strong regulating body will ensure that poor and under-performing schools are shut down as per the stipulations in the contract.

“We found several examples of partnerships in the developing world where an external organisation, in cooperation with government, can be used as a regulatory body. This can help address a lack of capacity in the public sector and mitigate potential corruption,” Bernstein says.

“Contract schooling is not a silver bullet nor are all such schools great performers. It is clear that the chances of success improve greatly if the right operating environment is created through an appropriate regulatory body, contracts deal with the essential issues relevant for student performance and failing schools are closed down,” she said.

South Africa should start experimenting with contract schools in poor communities.



The rise of low-fee private schools can only benefit South Africa

01 August 2013: Read this article on BDLive.

PRIVATE schools for the poor are a global phenomenon. In Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere, parents are deserting failing public schools and “edupreneurs” are emerging to meet local needs. About 40% of India’s urban pupils are in private schools for the poor. If unregistered schools are included, this jumps closer to 70%.

A detailed survey of educational provision in four Indian states described poor parents making great sacrifices to send children to private schools, so disillusioned were they with government schools.
What is the secret of success in these mushrooming private schools for the poor? The Indian report was clear: “In a private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them) and through him or her to the parents (who can withdraw their children). In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents.”
South Africa has a small, but growing, low-fee private schooling sector. No one knows the exact size of the sector, but evidence suggests it is much larger than the 4% of total school-goers indicated in the latest census figures.

Low-fee private schooling in South Africa is growing rapidly. The Independent School Association of Southern Africa says there are more than 2,500 independent schools. Umalusi, the statutory quality assurance body says there are about 3,500 registered independent schools. No one knows the number of unregistered schools.

Meanwhile, the public school sector is shrinking. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of public schools declined by 9%, while the number of known independent schools (from a much smaller base) grew 44%. Of course, the size of schools differs.

Significant developments are taking place in the low-fee sector. Curro Holdings, a private schooling company that aims to grow to 100 schools in the next decade, listed on the JSE in 2011 and now has a market capitalisation of more than R5bn. It has recently bought a privately run teacher-training college producing 1,000 teachers a year to serve the needs of its schools.

The Public Investment Corporation (PIC) and Old Mutual have established a special education fund, which has invested in two private schooling chains — Curro and Basa. Basa Educational Institute Trust operates primary and secondary schools in working class areas. This black-owned and managed school chain has 160 teachers and runs four schools in Soweto, inner-city Johannesburg and Diepsloot catering to 5,000 pupils a year. The PIC and Old Mutual’s R60m investment will fund renovation and expansion of Basa’s Soweto-based primary school and development of a new high school. Together, these two schools aim to educate 2,400 pupils a year.

Spark schools — launched by young entrepreneurs this year — intends to become a network of low-fee, nonprofit private schools. Adapting successful experience in the US, Spark aims to grow to 64 schools in a decade. The Commonwealth Education Trust, which invests in primary and secondary education in developing countries, has approved the launch of Nova Schools in the Western Cape. These schools, which will open next year, will be supported by a central hub providing services to each school. They hope to reach 3,600 pupils in two years.

These four recent developments illustrate the innovative, experimental nature of the sector. From the use of technology in classrooms as a way to individualise teaching and reduce costs; to a cluster of schools all served by a central hub providing administration and quality controls; to much larger numbers in classes where teachers and teaching assistants will deal with up to 100 children, this sector is providing research and development for schooling poorer communities.

With the growth of the sector, one of the primary questions concerns affordability.
There is much innovation and work to be done in further reducing the cost of schooling and making the low-fee sector even more affordable to the poor.

By international standards, South Africa’s low-fee schools are expensive. Fees range from R750 a month to R1,200 and even R2,000 a month. In India, “budget” private schools charge annual fees of R2,000 and less. In Kenya, a chain of low-fee schools charges R360 a year. The affordability issue raises the question of government subsidies. Registered, nonprofit independent schools in South Africa are the only ones that can receive state subsidy, but not all qualify — and their level of state subsidy is determined by their fees (the more school fees charged, the less the subsidy). This subsidy is never more than 60% of the equivalent cost of government schooling, even when the parents of children are poor.

There is resistance to independent schools among some officials in some provinces. And in many provinces there is also a lack of capacity to implement the subsidy regulations correctly. However, the Department of Basic Education is supportive of independent schools, as are some of the provinces. They recognise the value added and cost savings to the government, as well as the need for partnerships and collaboration to improve the quality of the education system as a whole. However, efforts to make these schools accessible should be supported by public policy, including a review of subsidies.


What is social justice in this area?

In poor communities, where public schooling is described by the government as dysfunctional (and worse by others), why should parents who decide to attend a local private school receive so much less per pupil than is spent on pupils in government schools? Why not have a system in which an agreed amount is allocated to each pupil irrespective of the school they attend (public or private) and then leave it to the parents to decide where to spend that money.

If provincial education departments are struggling to implement government policy and the constitutional obligation of support to private schools, why not look to another form of regulation?
In Pakistan and the Philippines, for example, a transparent and fair process of private school regulation takes place that is also responsible for the allocation of the public subsidy.

The regulatory demands on private schools need to be equivalent to the oversight and demands on public schools.
A situation in which private schools are subjected to multiple regulatory bodies while far too many public schools fail to perform with impunity is not a recipe for success or social justice.

If South Africa is to join the ranks of developing countries with higher standards of schooling performance, and with good schooling available to the poor, it will need to review the ethics and the practicalities of national and provincial education funding.

Schooling systems need diversity and experimentation. Affordable private schools are vital parts of the schooling system in many other developing countries in Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. In the context of a struggling and patently unaccountable public schooling system in South Africa, the development and expansion of private schools serving poorer communities is a trend to be welcomed and encouraged.


– Business Day

Private schools can improve quality across the board

19 June 2012: Read this article on BDLive

SA’s public schooling system needs fundamental reform. Choice and diversity in a schooling system can improve outcomes. The private (independent) school sector provides this diversity and an alternative way to access quality education. Private schools, especially in low-income communities, are a growing and vital part of ensuring more choice for parents and driving better performance by all schools, public and private. This means that those interested in schooling reform should be concerned about the increasingly disabling policy environment affecting private schooling.

The recent discovery that a few private schools fraudulently obtained and misused state subsidies has created a backlash against private schooling, with the Gauteng education d epartment determined to “tighten up policy weaknesses”. Fraud and corruption are serious problems in SA and must be vigorously combated. Private schools that qualify for subsidies must be accountable for the public funds they receive.

Research into private low-fee schooling in SA indicates that strengthening this sector requires smart regulation and an effective combination of public and private resources. Schools that receive public funding must be held accountable for how they use those funds but smothering all private schools in red tape will block an important way of expanding quality schooling. In the main, adequate regulations are already in place to hold private schools accountable. If these are adhered to, fraud will be prevented.

In 2010, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) published the results of its research into this innovative area of education. By showing that low-fee private schools exist in surprisingly large and fast-growing numbers in and around townships, inner cities and remote rural areas, the findings dispelled some myths: that private education is only for the rich and that most low-fee schools are run by crooks. Quality does vary, but ample evidence was gained of dedication on the part of “edupreneurs”, who establish and run schools, by teachers who work hard and for lower salaries than their public counterparts, and from parents and pupils whose desire for quality education has created this expanding market and drives accountability for results and standards. Many such schools provide choice for parents and pupils and the kind of competition and accountability that could be a spur to self-renewal in the public system.

What needs to be done to expand access to quality education in the private school sector? The experience in countries as diverse as India, Brazil, Pakistan, the Philippines, Chile and elsewhere gives food for thought.

India has adopted one effective way of assessing the output of all schools against a common standard. Its open school system allows pupils to study anywhere they choose, including at home, and to write a certificate examination at the end of class 3, class 5, class 8, class 10 and class 12. In this way, government bureaucracies ensure uniform standards without dictating how schools achieve results. At the same time, the system provides parents with information they can use to assess the quality of schools.

The Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society is demonstrating through a pilot project that an education subsidy, given directly to very poor parents, can be managed effectively and generate tangible benefits. These include better performance at school, more involvement of parents in their children’s schooling and a greater willingness among parents to spend money on their children’s education.

Private sector providers of education in India offer continuous professional development services from centres near clusters of private schools; send graduates from the best local universities to low-fee schools on a rotational basis; set up “information technology classrooms”; and use the “due diligence” reports on schools provided by education service providers as a way to assess the creditworthiness of schools. The providers of education services identify the good schools and provide assurances that they will not default on loans. Within this system, a large international bank advanced $500000 and committed itself to granting loans to 50 schools for the poor within two years. According to the bank, no school defaulted.

In the Philippines, an a ccreditation f ederation has been set up comprising different school accreditation boards. Each of these boards has to meet certain standards, after which they are allowed to accredit private schools under their jurisdiction.

In Pakistan, the Punjab Education Foundation is an autonomous, statutory body responsible for private, not-for-profit schooling. The foundation runs a range of government-funded programmes, including voucher schemes and teacher-training programmes; disperses public funds to private schools for the poor; and monitors them. This illustrates the advantages of governments establishing privately run, autonomous statutory bodies focus ed on the needs of private schools and deriving their legitimacy from the schools’ success.

Increasingly, companies all over the developing world are entering the education business by setting up school chains. They have the capacity to set up administration systems for large numbers of schools and develop a central curriculum and teaching and learning materials that are available at cheap unit cost to the chain’s schools.

These examples could motivate the government, private players, parents and civil society organisations to play distinctive roles in helping to design and implement a more favourable dispensation for quality, low-cost private schools in SA.

Ideally, such a dispensation would promote the expansion of better quality private schools and encourage public school improvement through competition.

With these goals in mind, more decision-makers in the government could engage with practical ideas from other developing countries and collaborate with private partners on their implementation. Private sector organisations could explore the establishment of a special loan facility at a favourable interest rate, and with a lenient repayment schedule, which private schools could access. Private funders could also help introduce more efficient business models, such as school chains. Parents and community organisations could provide sustained pressure to promote school choice and improve the quality of education available to the poor.

International experience shows that the regulatory environment can facilitate or inhibit the development of innovative, low-cost private schools. Creating a simpler and more equitable regulatory environment for private and public schools would allow more private schools to be established and grow in response to community demand. They could provide access to underserved pupils while still being held accountable for quality education by their users and government performance targets. Providing parents with schooling choices will encourage an environment that can drive better quality and performance in public and private schools. Increased state funding for children in low-fee private schools will enable these schools to sustainably serve even poorer communities. This will require more effective use of education budgets and would be a cost-effective way to raise educational outcomes.


Business must play its part to expand vocational education



Based on VOCATIONAL EDUCATION IN SOUTH AFRICA: Strategies for improvement

SA’s attempts to achieve accelerated and shared growth over the past decade or so have been thwarted by shortages of artisan, technical and other vocational skills. The basic problem is poor educational quality despite high expenditure. In addition, the disappearance of apprenticeships, shortcomings in training by sector education and training authorities (Setas) and the inadequacies of further education and training (FET) institutions have made their own contributions to this blockage to growth.

At the same time, the country is haunted by the waste of youthful potential represented by about 3-million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who, according to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s recent green paper, are not in employment, education or training.

Unlike basic and general education, the point of post-secondary education, at institutions such as FET colleges, technical high schools and technikons, is employability. Since the private sector is the engine of job creation, qualifications that are highly regarded by business should be the goal.

This has not been the case up to now. Despite government attempts to expand vocational education, qualifications from vocational schools often fail to inspire employers’ confidence; teachers at vocational schools and colleges don’t have enough experience; and students are often uninterested or unable to cope.

What business and industry need in order to create employment is people who can “hit the ground running” and be productive in the workplace immediately. The key to this is good quality, vocationally oriented education in which school-leavers are exposed to occupations in technological, commercial, agricultural and other fields and receive further post-school training before they can enter the labour market.

How can this be achieved? The Centre for Development and Enterprise’s new research in this area makes it clear that a strong role for the private sector is desirable. We have identified several successful vocationally oriented programmes in which the education or training institution works closely with business or industry.

One example is the Middelburg Higher Technical School near the industrial hub of eMalahleni (formerly Witbank) in Mpumalanga. Partnerships between the school and industry give pupils training opportunities that address two critical shortages – technical and artisan skills – and a diversity of appropriate education pathways after Grade 9 to help develop these skills.

The private sector, including companies such as Toyota, invests heavily in the school, provides after-school training and considers pupils favourably for employment. It has also devised a modular, after-school training course for interested pupils and has appointed teachers to lead this. Once pupils have successfully completed the first modules and their schooling, they can apply for employment at Toyota, where they will complete their training as employees.

Employment is not guaranteed, but pupils who complete the course can apply to any Toyota dealer in SA for a job.

Another Middelburg company, Samancor, a ferrochrome-producer, also uses the school for specific, after-school training. This training is Seta-accredited and focuses on pre-artisan training for Grade 10 to 12 pupils. Successful pupils are employed by the company and given further training once they finish school.

Research on international experience also underlines the importance of private sector involvement in vocational education. Partnership arrangements between the government, education institutions, organised employer bodies and trade unions demonstrate that no one sector can solve training and unemployment problems on its own. Germany and Switzerland are prime examples of successful, dual-track, vocational education systems. In Germany, learning at a vocational school is combined with apprenticeship training at a host company. The success of some of its famous companies may partly be attributed to this partnership.

In Switzerland, most companies are small enterprises, employing fewer than 10 people. Public funding amounts to about 55% of all funding for this sector, while private funding makes up the balance. This suggests considerable business confidence in the education provided – not yet the case in SA.

In Australia, the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions facilitates the transition of pupils into technical and further education. This includes the Community Partnership Brokers Programme, which is aimed at improving community and business engagement with schools, to extend learning beyond the classroom.

Successful outcomes such as these require a high degree of collaboration between the government and industry at the planning stage. Effective partnerships combine a mix of knowledge and skills, drawing on general education, as well as vocational education. One important aspect is that appropriate mathematics and science syllabuses are devised for the technical subjects. Another is that teachers have knowledge and understanding of the workplace and its demands, as well as their own subject expertise.

SA lags far behind on many of these criteria. Strengthening vocational education so that it can play a strong role in economic development and employment creation will require four key elements.

First, the country needs to develop a specific policy framework for expanding vocational education, particularly at identified focus schools. This requires the government to reprioritise the role this type of education should play in our school system.

Second, the role of business needs to be clarified and extended. The businesses involved should meet certain conditions. For example, the company involved should be a leader in its field, and the schooling process should meet the norms and standards of that industry. This will help students become potentially preferred employees.

Third, maths and science education must be improved countrywide.

It is difficult to understand why pupils who want to become artisans and those who want to become engineers and engineering scientists are expected to follow the same maths and physical science syllabus, as is now the case. The great task of making maths and science schooling fit for purpose needs much greater focus, urgency and leadership from the two departments involved, and engagement with the private sector, which has so much at stake.

Fourth, these proposals are based on the assumption that the private sector will be given the opportunity for constructive, meaningful participation and engagement in strengthening and developing vocational education in our school system. If the links between vocational education and youth employment are to be improved, business should be central to any rebuilding.

Until this rebuilding is well under way, vocational and vocationally-oriented education will continue to be seen as second best. The idea that this type of education is inferior should be addressed urgently.

Unless the public and private sectors are encouraged to work together to solve the numerous and onerous difficulties that beset our education system, the result will be poorer education, higher unemployment and lower economic growth.


Teacher management and training need an overhaul

22 September 2011


– Ann Bernstein and Jeff McCarthy, Business Day

Wake up, it’s school time

7 September 2011: Read this article at IOL Daily News

The Brazilian experience should provide hope for South Africa. In a society characterised by great inequality, and much larger numbers than South Africa, Brazilian political leadership made a major difference to education.

Some years ago, the president and his senior education officials mobilised public sentiment and political will throughout a vast country.

As a result of introducing incentives for headmasters and teachers, and a focus on student performance, the country has moved from being “bottom of world class” to “the world’s fastest reforming schooling system”.

In South Africa, while some improvements had been made, the public schooling system is failing too many young South Africans.

There are few local education experts who believe the system will improve dramatically over the next five, 10 or even 20 years. And yet international research into educational reform in 20 countries worldwide shows that measurable and sustainable reform is possible within five to six years, and from almost any starting point.

At a Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) Round Table on International Schooling Reform held in Johannesburg earlier this year, one of the international experts was the late Paulo Renato Souza, former Brazilian minister of education, and secretary of education of the state of Sao Paulo.

He outlined steps taken to improve public education in Sao Paulo, and generally in Brazil.

Social participation played a vital role in helping Brazil to implement its new policy. The first thing former President Cardoso did was to launch a programme called “Wake up, Brazil, it’s time for school”, which called on all segments of society to help transform education.

They then took three major practical steps.

The first was to consistently implement an effective assessment system of student performances.

The second was to improve the performance of teachers in the classroom through incentives and training, and the third, to improve school management and assist principals.

Brazil created a uniform assessment system, and established clear performance targets for each school.

These acknowledged that not all schools started from the same positions of advantage, but that there had to be common internationally referenced indicators of performance.

Then there was a bonus system for principals, other managerial staff, and teachers, pegged to students’ performances as well as to repetition and dropout rates.

The bonuses consist of 2.4 times the salaries at schools that reach their performance targets, and 2.9 times the salaries at schools that exceed their performance targets.

These targets acknowledged that schools in poor areas for example started from a more difficult point. But excuses were not accepted.

Poor attendance by teachers, for example, may result in their bonuses being reduced or even eliminated.

In the end the bonuses proved attractive and successful. By 2010, of 227 000 eligible teachers and staff, 210 000 received some kind of bonus.

Brazil also recognised the need to create new career paths for teachers, involving promotion along five new levels, and larger salary increases for each level. Promotion to the next level could involve a salary increase of 25 percent.

This means that the salary of a good teacher can increase fourfold in the course of their career. Conditions for promotion include improved attendance, continuity in the same school, and further studies in the subject being taught.

Knowledge of the subject being taught was seen as more important than general educational training, which was seen as too theoretical.

Rewards for performance and attendance were the most controversial parts of Renato Souza’s administration, and he said he initially had a lot of trouble with the unions. But he appealed to their career interests, as well as to wider society through television and the media so as to stimulate a public debate, and create broader public support for the intended reforms.

He did not defer to vested interests and the orthodoxies of the educational establishment, but persisted with practical measures that showed student results, created opportunities for good teachers and headmasters, and which parents supported.

As regards school management, Renato Souza said that

Brazilians have learnt that good principals play a vital role in improving schools; in fact, he said, Brazilian studies have shown that merely training a principal in general management without taking any other steps can lead to major improvements in the performance of learners.

Good principals actively lead their schools and engage with their communities of parents, who in turn, apply pressure on the school to achieve good results.

Two programmes were launched to stimulate the participation of communities. The first gave state funds to Parent-teacher Associations and the second was a national campaign aimed at stimulating parents’ involvement in schools. The Brazilian assessment system had shown that parental involvement was strongly correlated with performance, so the authorities launched a national day for parents’ participation in schools.

In South Africa, schooling reform is not high enough on the national agenda. It may require similar interventions to those described by Renato Souza. Brazil is no longer at the bottom of the world class in terms of educational achievements, but in many ways South Africa is.

The 2011 Annual National Assessment results released in South Africa in late June 2011 indicated for example that in Grade 6, the national average performance in numeracy was 30 percent. Despite areas of improvement, National Senior Certificate (NSC) results in mathematics have also declined recently. Are such indicators partly because many teachers are absent much of the time, and that many are teaching subjects they know little about?

In the meantime, the costs are mounting. The growing militancy of sections of South Africa’s youth is partly a reflection of their poor education and un-employability.

We cannot allow such a tragedy to continue. South Africa has its own specific circumstances.

The South African education system is large and complex, but Brazil’s with a population of over 200 million is much larger and more complex. Sao Paulo state alone (population 50 million) has almost as many schools as South Africa.

Any reform attempts here are complicated by South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, and past and current issues of race and politics, but Brazil too has a complex legacy of class and racial inequalities.

South Africa should not try simply to replicate what people are doing elsewhere. Nonetheless the Brazilian case may hold many lessons for our own efforts to work our way up from the bottom.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education and her Director-General have shown admirable interest in what can be learnt from abroad.

They are also to be congratulated on conducting and publishing the Annual National Assessment this year. They deserve our support as they embark on essential reforms.

By contrast, explaining away historical failure by reference to allegedly unique local circumstances, or acquiescing to apologists linked to vested interests, must not be allowed to continue.

Like Brazil 10 years ago, it is time to say from the top: “Wake up South Africa! It is time to improve our schools!”.

We must follow this up with rewards for performance and regular assessments of principals and teachers in terms of student results. And we must put parents and the wider society in the lead in a new social compact on quality education.

* Bernstein is executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise. This article is based on a new CDE publication, Schooling Reform is Possible: Lessons for South Africa from international experience, available at www.cde.org.za.

– Ann Bernstein and Jeff McCarthy, Daily News

Op-ed: Learning curve

24 August 2010, Ann Bernstein and Stefan Schirmer for the Times.


This article is based on a new report by the CDE: “HIDDEN ASSETS: South Africa’s low-fee private schools”.

Research released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise suggests that rather than low-fee private schools being discouraged, they should be seen as a vital part of our education environment.

We need to reassess our regulatory regime to encourage the development of both state and private schools. We should use the potential of vibrant competition as a tool for improving the quality of education, ensuring that schools become more accountable to the communities they are meant to serve.

Private schooling for the poor is a global growth industry, filling the gap left by struggling state systems in developing societies. In India, for example, the majority of learners in urban areas now attend private schools.

Low-fee private schools have also gained a foothold in South Africa. How big is this sector? How fast is it growing? Can it provide meaningful numbers of learners in poorer communities with a good education? Should the state do more to recognise this sector, and encourage its growth? These are among the issues addressed in the ground-breaking study conducted by the CDE over the past two years.

Our research turned into a journey of discovery. While other studies have been conducted on this topic, they have thus far been based on phone surveys and national census data. By contrast, CDE literally “walked the streets” of our selected areas, and searched block by block for schools – both registered and unregistered.

We found private schools in abandoned factories, shopping centres, shacks, and high-rise buildings. We found a chain of private schools operating in the Johannesburg city centre, Soweto, and Diepsloot, accommodating thousands of learners. The founders were planning on opening a chain of high schools.

In some inner-city areas, private schools far outnumbered public schools. Even more surprising was the even split between state and private schools in rural Butterworth, and the presence of private schools in remote areas in Limpopo and Eastern Cape.

The low-fee private schooling sector appears to be far larger than is generally believed. While public schools remained in the majority, low-fee private schools comprised more than 30% of our sample – far more than the Department of Education’s national estimate for 2008 of 4.3%.

Between 1994 and 2009, more private schools were established in the areas we investigated than public schools. Classes in public schools were bigger than those in private schools, and the pupil-teacher ratio was far higher. While the low-fee private schools had fewer facilities than public schools, as in other countries, they tended to concentrate on the essentials of teaching that would provide the pass rates they needed to attract more pupils.

While obviously varying in quality, the low-fee private schools we investigated were generally valued by parents, were accountable to parents, were staffed by dedicated teachers who often worked for low salaries, and were run by principals and owners determined to provide the quality of schooling sought by locals. A key feature of these schools was their local accountability.

Should parents become unhappy with their children’s results, the dedication of the teachers, or perceive other problems with the school, they could take their children – and the funds associated with their tuition – elsewhere.

This competition between schools meant that they had to strive for quality education or cease to exist. The same cannot be said of public-sector schools, where in general, budgets are not directly linked to performance. To attract customers, private schools had to offer better schooling than that provided by surrounding schools.

Teacher salaries in private schools were far lower than those in public schools, with state teachers tending to be better qualified. Levels of teacher absenteeism were, however, far lower in private schools than in public schools. Indeed, not a single teacher was absent at any of the unregistered private schools visited by our researchers. The teachers in these private schools seemed to be well aware that they were directly accountable to the owner of the school, who in turn was directly accountable to the parents.

Our findings raise important questions for current education debates. Should free schooling be a policy priority?

The parents we interviewed argued that paying for schooling made principals and teachers more accountable. This poses the following questions. Does competition between local schools – public and private – improve the quality of the schooling offered? If there are consequences for public schools whose parents choose to send their children to a private school, will this spur improved performance in public schools? What really leads to better teacher performance? Should we focus more on sanctions for teacher absenteeism and bad performance?
This article is based on the following report: Hidden Assets: South Africa’s low-fee private schools

Low-Fee Private Schools in SA a growing phenomenon


11 August 2010


This article is based on a new report by the CDE: “HIDDEN ASSETS: South Africa’s low-fee private schools”.

Two years of ‘on-the-ground’ research by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has uncovered the remarkable emergence of low-fee private schools in South Africa’s urban, peri-urban and rural areas.

“We were astounded at the number of private schools we uncovered,” said Ann Bernstein, executive director of CDE. “Our study turned into an extraordinary journey of discovery. We visited 91 private schools, many of them more than once. We found schools located in formal buildings, abandoned factories, shopping centres, shacks and high-rise buildings.

“We discovered a chain of private primary schools in the Johannesburg CBD, Soweto and Diepsloot, accommodating thousands of learners.”

Private schooling for the poor is a global phenomenon which is gaining massive momentum in developing societies such as India, Pakistan, Chile, Ghana and Colombia but its emergence in South Africa has been insufficiently recognised.

CDE conducted extensive research to locate all the schools – both public and private – in six areas with high poverty rates.

CDE ‘got its boots dirty’ in three provinces: Braamfontein and Daveyton in Gauteng; Giyani and Malamulele in Limpopo; Butterworth and Cofimvaba / Tsomo in the Eastern Cape. We then supplemented this work with additional research in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga.

Research included mapping all the public and private schools in a chosen area, surveying and then visiting the private schools, interviewing principals and teachers, using agreed testing methods on Grade Six learners to assess the quality of education and conducting focus group sessions with the parents of children in three of the survey areas.

In the six areas that CDE surveyed, where on average 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, more than 30 per cent of the schools were private. This is far more than the official national estimate for 2008, of 4.3 per cent. Furthermore, in the period 1994 to 2009 more private schools were established in these areas than public schools, and there are strong indications that private schools are expanding at an accelerating rate.

Classes in public schools were bigger than those in private schools, with a much higher learner-teacher ratio. While the private schools had fewer facilities than public schools, they tended to concentrate on the essentials of teaching that will provide successful pass rates – a measurement which directly attracts more learners;

CDE conducted focus groups to uncover why parents (many of whom were teachers at public schools) have elected to send their children to these private schools.

Most parents explained that they chose schools because they achieve better results; use English as the medium of instruction; and paying school fees made these private schools more accountable to parents.

Low-fee private schools’ local accountability and parental involvement contradicts most strongly the inaccurate reputation that these schools are all ‘fly by night’ institutions run by unscrupulous operators trying to fleece gullible parents. Rather than being dupes, parents are actively involved in setting up these schools and shaping the way they educate their children.

The extent to which paying fees makes private schools accountable to parents raises the question of whether the extension of free schooling should be a policy priority. “Rather than removing the leverage that parents gain from being customers of the school it may be more beneficial to assist struggling families on an individual basis,” adds Bernstein.

CDE’s research indicated that while the quality of these schools did vary, the fact that they are under permanent pressure to attract customers means that they regard performance as a key priority and constantly strive to improve

CDE administered an official test, made available by the Department of Education, to Grade Six learners in private schools and then compared this to the performance of equivalent learners in public schools in the same area. The results suggest that private schools are no worse than public schools – and they are significantly better in some areas.

Teacher qualifications are generally lower in the private schools and salaries are much lower. However levels of teacher absenteeism were far lower at the private schools. In fact no teachers were absent at any of the unregistered private schools forming part of the CDE interviews, visits and survey.

“If dissatisfied parents had the option of removing their children from public schools and enrolling them in low-fee private schools, it would act as a powerful incentive to principals and teachers in state schools to improve performance or face job losses,” Bernstein argued. Of course, she added this requires that state schools face financial and other penalties when parents vote with their feet by taking their children out.

“Educational policy reforms should aim to create an environment in which quality schooling will expand regardless of whether the providers are public, private or a combination of both,” concluded Bernstein.

The next phase of the CDE’s research will examine international best practice and assess how to create an enabling environment for low-fee private schooling as a vital component of South Africa’s education system.

This article is based on the following report, Hidden Assets: South Africa’s low fee private schools