While South African business spends a great deal of time and money on education projects, it has not improved the education system as a whole.

In a struggling system, individual projects are not effective tools for impacting the overall quality of schooling or for promoting meaningful improvement at scale.

The problem is that the resources commanded by companies and foundations are miniscule compared to government expenditure on education. The most effective way, therefore, to spend private rands is to influence the future spending of public rands.

These are some of the insights from an international workshop held by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in Washington DC, in association with business leaders and organisations involved in education reform.

“The idea was to learn from U.S. experience and uncover ways to help businesses move beyond small, isolated projects and make a strategic contribution to large-scale schooling reform in South Africa,” says Ann Bernstein, Executive Director of CDE.

“While business has made a generous and valuable contribution to education in SA, resulting in many excellent projects, what is desperately needed is system-wide reform.”

It’s no secret that the South African schooling system is struggling. Learners perform very badly in international tests in mathematics, science and functional literacy, and lag years behind intended outcomes. The system is also wasteful because many who enter it drop out or fail to find jobs.

“The country needs good ideas to help focus the allocation of private funding, so it has the best chance of positively influencing the education system,” says Bernstein.

One notable insight from the workshop was that trying to reform public education through the sheer force of private money is a bit like pouring buckets of water into the ocean. The most effective way to spend private resources, therefore, is to redirect how public money is spent in the future.

Many of the items supplied by philanthropists to education – such as new technology or staff development – could be purchased with public funds but are not for political and bureaucratic reasons. It’s important to ask why these schools don’t purchase these products for themselves. Once the barriers have been identified, limited private funds would be spent most effectively by advocating the removal of the barrier, and convincing public money to support the idea.

Business leaders need to become advocates for education reform, as their impact as public figures with access to the media can significantly exceed the value of a project grant.

“Another strategy,” says Bernstein “is for companies to focus less on experimental projects and ideas and more on taking proven ideas to more sites.”

Companies can use their examples as models when advocating policy change. It is often better for business to help government take proven ideas to scale, because, regardless of how much business spends, government will always spend far more.

“Non-state money is a scarce resource and needs to be used in the most effective way possible,” says Bernstein.

“South African business needs to develop a far more sophisticated and strategic understanding of the schooling challenge. It needs to ramp up the policy debate on the ‘how’ of actual reform and educational improvement.”

“This will be beneficial both for the schooling system and ultimately the companies that so desperately need skilled employees.

This article is based on CDE’s report Business and schooling reform: What can we learn from experience in the United Sta