South Africa’s education system faces significant challenges. Damning statistics and poor performance in the country’s education sector are well documented. The crisis has led to a debate on the role corporates and other funders can play in improving learner outcomes and in optimising the impact of their investments into the education system. This was the subject of a webinar hosted on 27 October by responsible business consultancy, Trialogue.
Three expert panellists provided insight and case studies to an audience of over 150 delegates from the corporate and non-profit sectors. Panellists included Nobuntu Lange (Corporate and Government Affairs at VW South Africa), Nikki Green (Community Programme Coordinator at the Centre for Social Development (CSD)), Rhodes University) and Jonathan Molver (Country Director, South Africa: Education Partnerships Group (EPG)). Riyaadh Ebrahim, the Thought Leadership manager at Trialogue, moderated the session.
Early learning outcomes as a key lever for sustainable development
Trialogue’s latest research indicates that South Africa’s education sector receives the highest share of corporate social investment (CSI) budgets, with 98% of corporates surveyed in 2021 affirming they were supporting education. Despite this, South Africa continues to fare badly compared to its global peers where learning outcomes such as literacy and numeracy are concerned.
According to the 2021 PIRLS study, 78% of South African learners cannot read for meaning in any language by the end of grade four. Similarly, South Africa has consistently performed at or below the low benchmarks on the TIMSS study for maths and science. To improve the current trajectory of learner outcomes, South Africa’s education system needs to undergo a drastic overhaul.
VW South Africa: investing in the future workforce
Education has been a key area of focus for VW South Africa. Over the years, the business has invested in improving literacy, numeracy and matric results with the aim of developing a talent that can go on to pursue work employment opportunities in sectors linked to vehicle industry.
“Since the establishment of our Community Trust over 23 years ago, we have always invested in education. In fact, 84% of our CSI investments goes towards education and youth development because we believe that is where we can make the most impact,” said Lange.
In 2015, VW South Africa sharpened its focus on improving learner outcomes by introducing the Legacy Literacy Programme. This is based on the understanding that reading with meaning is the gateway to all future academic performances.
The Legacy Literacy Programme was established to equip learners with the resources necessary to be able to read with meaning. It also equips teachers with the skills that they need to teach and assess literacy and parents and caregivers with the ability to support their children at home. Teachers are the single most important element of the education system, the quality of a country’s teachers is intimately related with the quality of its education system. As a result, VWSA collaborates with a range of partners, which include non-profit organisation Funda Wande as well as Rhodes University’s CSD, expects in teacher development.
“Even though we introduced the Literacy Legacy programme, we didn’t leave all the other programmes which we were already investing in. ‘We have a cluster of educational programmes that range from early childhood development right until bursaries at tertiary level,” Lange explained.
Centre for Social Development at Rhodes University
The CSD is a self-funded NPO that is linked to Rhodes University. Its primary focus is on early childhood development, from birth to nine years, with an explicit focus on building the capacity of early childhood development (ECD) centres to become centres of excellence through providing support and development opportunities around play based learning, literacy development, curriculum development, nutrition, advocacy and resource development.
CSD partners with VW South Africa on the Literacy Legacy programme. The aim of the partnership is to benchmark the literacy levels of grade three learners in the Eastern Cape. After the first three years of implementation, a programme evaluation conducted by Prof. John Aitchison showed that literacy levels had not improved over the years.
“This culminated in a new programme implemented between 2020 and 2022, which aimed to streamline and consolidate the literacy project in five focus schools, with particular attention to deeply embedding reading proficiency in isiXhosa, the mother tongue of the learners, given that mother tongue literacy is a strong indicator for later literacy in a second language,” explained Green.
Through the Literacy Legacy programme, VW South Africa has funded the establishment of literacy centres in five schools in the Eastern Cape. Each school has a literacy ambassador who supports the teachers in the classroom. Literacy ambassadors are trained in various approaches to literacy development. The programme also supports grade R teachers.
“We have seen subtle improvements in the literacy levels of learners in the five schools, despite the challenges that we had to overcome,” concluded Green.
Education Partnerships Group supports governments to shape and strengthen education systems
The EPG supports governments in low- and middle-income countries to shape and strengthen education systems. At the heart of the organisation’s approach is a belief that governments are best placed to make decisions about either their countries or their provinces. The vision of EPG is to make sure that every child can go to school and learn.
In his presentation, Molver highlighted the importance of building partnerships with government, saying: “The organisation believes that supporting government to design and implement contextually relevant and evidence based public policy is the best way to drive sustainable progress towards achieving quality education for all. EPG achieves its objectives by doing three things. Firstly, it supports government with generating and using research to inform policy. Secondly, the organisation supports the design and development of policy. And thirdly, it supports piloting, scaling and implementation of policy reform initiatives”.
EPG achieves this through strong partnerships and by taking time to understand the context. Key to EPG’s interventions is taking a specific focus on strengthening the system as a whole, instead of focusing on individual aspects of the system. The ultimate goal is to ensure the government is able to implement effective learning and adaptation mechanisms as well as policy reforms that can be sustained over time.
Accountability in schooling systems and among teachers
The panel discussion highlighted the extent to which South Africa’s education system lacks rigorous accountability. Performance standards for district directors, circuit managers, principals or teachers do not focus on learner outcomes. Consequently, the only time valid and reliable assessments of learner outcomes are conducted is when learners leave school. Where they do exist, accountability mechanisms are largely compliance exercises characterised by too many indicators there. Assessments are typically conducted by teachers themselves, and their peers, and undue influence from unions means that teachers are guaranteed a pay increase irrespective of performance.
Shrinking education budgets were also highlighted as another challenge. The lack of adequate budgets means the education department’s budget for quality assurance is also shrinking. Additional challenges include weak governance systems as well as the significant wave of school retirement among teachers over the last five years – there is an urgent need to develop a pipeline of leaders.
Experience from practice further highlighted the lack of skills in teaching methodology as a key challenge facing the education system. “Our teachers, it seems, are not able to teach and assess literacy. That is one of the biggest problems that we have encountered. Even the practitioners at ECD level are not quite skilled to handle the development of a child,” explained Lange.
How can funders achieve greater buy-in from the school environment?
A lot more focus has been given to Basic Education in recent years with a trend of moving lower down the education continuum towards foundation phase and ECD. This has its own challenges – lack of standardised assessments makes benchmarking and impact assessment complex. As a result, there are few mechanisms to ensure accountability of schooling systems and teachers.
This was affirmed by Molver who emphasised that it is important that stakeholders raise the bar and put in place higher expectations and standards that drive performance and ensure quality education for learners. Molver also pointed out that the education system is made up different types of teachers. Some are capable, while some need to improve. It is therefore important to distinguish between the different types of teachers, and tailor support to their individual needs.
In addition, a range of role players need to be part of the accountability process if there are to be improvements in the education sector. This means securing buy-in from teachers and other stakeholders, including parents and communities, and ensuring they are involved in the development and implementation of interventions aimed at improving learning outcomes. It also means influencing policy development and change at systemic level, not just at school or district level. However, for this to be done effectively, stakeholders need to understand the different role players in the sector, and coordinate their efforts to ensure better synergies.
“There are so many of us working in the education sector. The first thing we should be asking governments and departments is what are your priorities and how can we help? And aligning ourselves to the priorities and of the state so that our efforts are coordinated and have a greater chance at impact,” explained Molver.
Finally, the panellists emphasised the importance of an evidence-based approach that is informed by rigorous data and incorporates lessons learnt from previous interventions or other role players. In all of this, emphasis should remain on developing teachers with the right skills and who are committed to delivering quality education. It is also important to ensure that effective accountability mechanisms are in place. Only in this way can the education system see improvements and sustained impact.
“The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.”