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How do we fix our dismal education?

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The pronoun “we” in the headline is usually understood to mean “the government”. But the government is failing. Start thinking how we, the people, can rescue South Africa’s children from their government. By IVO VEGTER.

“In 2001, the department of education launched the National Strategy for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in pursuit of improving the quality of teaching and learning in mathematics and science. In 2005 government re-affirmed its commitment to the NSMSTE by reviewing the strategy and setting a target of doubling the number of learners passing high-level Grade 12 mathematics and science to 50,000 by 2008. The goal was to contribute to the skills deficits that have been reported in the sectors of the economy that require competence in mathematical and scientific skills.”

Thus read the introduction to the South African Education Portal website dedicated to the Dinaledi (“Stars”) programme a few years ago. It doesn’t appear to have been updated by the department of education since 2008. That may be because the Dinaledi project is failing.

These dedicated schools were supposed to get extra support – in terms of funding for labs, computers and text books – for subjects like mathematics, engineering and science education. The hope was that more kids would enrol in subjects that are most likely needed by employers in a modern information economy.

The opposite has happened. Between 2008 and 2011, 21% fewer pupils took mathematics at Dinaledi schools, while 17% fewer took physical science. In total, 22,725 passed mathematics and 20,884 passed science in 2011, according to a report on ITWeb. You’ll note this does not add up to 50,000, which was the target for several years ago.

These special-focus schools hardly outperform the rest, on average. The science pass rate of 63% at Dinaledi schools compares with 55% in the general population. Admittedly, nobody believes that official pass rates aren’t massaged or that standards aren’t adjusted to produce numbers that meet nominal expectations anyway. Everyone who needs to know, knows how a bell curve adjustment works. And everyone who needs to hire, expects to spend a great deal for on-the-job training.

South Africa is not entirely alone, of course. Even in the biggest economy in the world, the US, a study by Raytheon found that six out of 10 kids would rather take out garbage than do maths homework.

But according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report for 2012, which surveys the views of business leaders about their countries, South Africa ranks 133rd out of 142 on how well its education system meets the needs of a competitive economy. Measured on maths and science alone it drops to 138th place. This, despite the fact that SA’s high school enrolment rate is 93.8%, ranking around the one-quarter mark in the field. In short, our kids are going to school, but they’re not learning anything.

For context, the US ranks 26th on the overall ranking, and 51st on the maths and science table. We await diplomatic complaints that enthusiasm for and excellence in garbage-collecting wasn’t measured.

Asian economies populate the top half of both tables. Singapore ranks second and first, respectively, Hong Kong 21st and 11th, Japan 36th and 24th, Malaysia 14th and 23rd, and even vast China finishes in a solid 54th and 31st.

Simply put, South Africa is failing disastrously at turning out matriculants who are ready to compete in the modern, global information economy.

Thinking that the government is going to fix this is sheer madness. I wish them well in their endeavours, but the rest of the country can’t sit idly by watching a slow-motion, state-run train smash. This isn’t about cute motivational slogans, better communication or rebranding. People’s lives are in the balance, and our economic future is at stake.

It’s time for companies and individual philanthropists to take matters into their own hands.

Why shouldn’t companies and wealthy private groups who have an interest in a well-educated workforce establish their own schools, at which they enrol children they hope will one day work in their organisations?

Different companies may focus on different jobs. Some will be running programmes similar to old-fashioned artisan apprenticeships. Others will emphasise languages. Some will hire the best maths, science and computer programming teachers available to teach their kids.

Many will be vocational in their focus, but the best kids will be filtered into more academic streams, to become research scientists and corporate strategists. Some will be small and highly specialised, focusing on music, art, nature conservation or niche trades like jewellery design. It will pay companies to help kids make the right choices in this regard. Not everyone can be a manager, a doctor, or a scientist.

These private schools, whether corporate or not, would be competitive. They would brag about their performance. Consistent failure would be a marketing disaster for them. Conversely, motivated children on whom education is not wasted would compete with each other for places in the best schools that best match their ambition, aptitude and interests.

Funding mechanisms can vary, from charging private tuition fees to those who can afford it to offering partial or full student loans and scholarships to whose who can’t. Some cases may involve having to work back your bursary, and in other cases a bursary might be “bought out” by a rival company, the same way a football club might sell a promising youngster it signed up for its training academy but can’t use in its first team.

It would surprise me if companies didn’t use the numbers of poor children they were educating at no or little cost to the pupils’ parents as a point of marketing pride. In any case, such spending ought to be accounted for as “corporate social investment” and be incentivised with tax breaks and formal recognition.

Some companies will want to experiment with different teaching philosophies, and the most successful will attract the patronage of children and their parents. This will offer choice for both parents and children, depending on aptitude, ambition, special needs and resources.

And when discredited ideas like outcomes-based education come around, it won’t take companies 15 years to cotton on that they’re failing while their competitors are succeeding. The number of pupil years lost will be far fewer than having to budge the vast ship of state on to a new course.

The government will probably continue to insist on setting national standards, at least while trustworthy private alternatives build a reputation for themselves, but that can easily be done by means of standardised testing.

What a particular school teaches should ultimately be entirely up to that school, as long as the kids pass the “standardised skills assessment” or whatever the bureaucrats want to call it. Universities will learn to draw on the best schools, and pick the best results from schools that are merely average. Companies will learn to pick the best matches for the job openings they have.

The state may well remain responsible as a catch-all for those who can’t find places in the growing private market for education, at least for the foreseeable future. However, over time, this reliance on the state will decrease. Perhaps it will one day be reduced to issuing vouchers to children who can’t find paid-for slots in private schools and need to rely on welfare funding.

Perhaps, one day, it will have the capacity to actually teach basic skills to the few children for which it offers a safety net. And perhaps, one day, it will stop having the right to meddle in South African children’s future altogether.

Choice in a market certainly does not ensure equality. On the contrary. It will produce wide variation and differentiation in terms of quality and vocational outcome. There will be a few fly-by-nights, but these are no harder to deal with than in any other market. On balance, markets work especially well when providing for needs that improve the quality of life of citizens.

When many ideas compete in such a market for education, the worst will filter out and the best will survive. In this context, “best” means adequate variety, adequate quality, as well as adequate affordability. After all, a car mechanic, a painter, a production line worker, a cleaner, a doctor and a software engineer have very different needs. Some jobs need little more than basic literacy and numeracy, with perhaps some understanding of the law and economics. Others need advanced technical training.

Once differentiation is considered normal by society, and efficient division of labour is celebrated, there is no shame in being a good electrician, a responsible truck driver, or a well-qualified farmhand. Who doesn’t respect their plumber, especially once you’ve seen them write an invoice or two? Just the other day, someone bragged to me about the “beautiful pipework” in his house.

The ideal of egalitarian state-run education is failing South Africans. We can wait until we have another lost generation or two of youth with no education, no prospects and nothing better to do than riot over services that never get delivered. Or we can take matters into our own hands and start educating our kids ourselves.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one does, even if they were able to navigate the bureaucratic complexity of South Africa’s education system. But I know where my money would be if I had to bet on which alternative would promise a brighter future for South Africa. DM

P.S. A reader sent me a link to a fascinating research-based article about how private schooling serves the poor in developing countries, by James Tooley. It’s a must-read, in light of what I propose above. Backing the Wrong Horse: How Private Schools Are Good for the Poor.

PPS: Daily Maverick reader Gina de Villiers points out some promising South African research: Poor communities turn to private education.


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