Opinionista Brian Levy 3 May 2017

To help Eastern Cape schools, add a dose of active citizenship

In another of their useful exposés, Equal Education’s recent report on systemic failure in Eastern Cape education (Daily Maverick, 28 April, 2017) brings renewed attention to the dismal state of so many of the province’s schools. Two decades into democracy, this is not where we expected to be; the continuing shortfalls of basic education for the majority of South Africa’s children do not bode well for the future.

Outrage is a natural response: not for nothing has South Africa become known as a “service delivery protest” capital of the world. But we also are learning that quick fixes are nowhere in sight. Indeed, at worst, outrage plays into the “it’s your fault’ syndrome that bedevils South African politics.

What, then, is to be done? For the past four years, a major research project on the politics and governance of South Africa’s schools (undertaken under the auspices of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice) has been exploring this question. The effort is part of a broader, global initiative sponsored by the University of Manchester-based Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) programme and, along with South Africa, includes research in Bangladesh, Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda. This article draws on the results from two recently-issued studies which focused on the Eastern Cape.

The results point in a very different direction from the familiar “just do it” good governance discourse. ESID research shows that reform is context-specific; in most settings, so-called “best practice” reforms are unlikely to take hold. The litany of failures of the Eastern Cape Department of Education is well known. However, as our working paper The Governance of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape explores in depth, these failures are deeply rooted in long-standing institutional and political dynamics (including, of course, the patronage-riddled apartheid-era Transkei and Ciskei bantustans, which covered the areas where two-thirds of the Eastern Cape’s residents currently reside). As the paper details, a troubling corollary follows: precisely because the roots of dysfunction are so deep, bureaucratic turnaround will not come easily. National government tried when it temporarily took over administration of the Eastern Cape Department of Education; but after a few years intervention was scaled back, with little achieved.

The stubborn resilience of bureaucratic dysfunction may not be good news for Equal Education’s campaign. But pressuring the bureaucracy to do better is only one way in which civil society can help improve educational outcomes. In messier governance settings, including the Eastern Cape, other approaches that are better adapted to their setting, and thus less dependent on bureaucratic performance, may have the potential to achieve significant educational gains. Active citizenship turns out to be key to open the doors of learning.

Learning from the school-level

In a working paper (School governance in a fragmented political and bureaucratic environment), Lawule Shumane and I explored in depth how governance played out over time in four schools in the Eastern Cape’s Butterworth district. Some of the case study schools had fallen victim to a low-level equilibrium of capture, centred around the principal and teaching staff in the short term, with the collusion of the school governing body and the broader community, reproduced via a captured process of principal selection – and with low morale, absenteeism by pupils and teachers and crumbling infrastructure the all-too-common consequences. But two exceptions are striking. In both, participatory, school-level governance made the key difference.

In the first of these, the institutional culture of the school was one where all stakeholders – teachers, the governing body, the extended community – felt included. This inclusive culture provided a powerful platform for managing the recruitment of teachers (and, when the time came for leadership succession, of the school principal) in a way that assured a continuing commitment to the educational mission of the school. One interviewee illustrated how this operated with the example of how new staff are inducted into the school’s organisational culture:

The principal will call newly appointed staff to a meeting and introduce them to everyone. At this meeting the principal will welcome the new staff member to the team and inform them on school culture…. he will often say ‘Mr or Ms so-and-so, at this school we are a family and if we have problems we deal with them openly. If there is unrest, we will know it is you because it has never happened before’.”

Of course, this case of regulated institutional culture depends on strong leadership within the school itself. What happens when even this is not present? Our second case study gave us just this scenario. The principal who set in motion the school’s long decline was appointed in the late 1980s, and remained in the post for over two decades. In the latter-1990s she purchased and moved to a home in a coastal town 100 kilometres away. From then on, using one pretext or another, she was, for much of the time an absentee principal. Astoundingly, this continued for about a decade. Unsurprisingly, the school went into a downward spiral, with the number of pupils falling from close to 1000 in the early 1990s, to a low of 341 in 2011.

In 2009, frustration at the principal’s continuing absence finally boiled over. A group of parents and some governing body members met, and jointly reached the view that a new principal was needed. The ECDoE district office was not supportive. In response, the parent community blockaded the school, preventing the principal from entering. The district office kept her on as a displaced teacher, reporting to the district office, until her retirement in 2010. The governing body subsequently selected as principal an internal candidate who had shown a commitment to try and make the school function during the grim period in its history. All, including the broader community, worked together to try and turn things around. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of pupils in the school rose from 347 to 547.

Supporting school-level governance: a South African paradox

In South Africa, the goal of school governance reform was formally realised in the immediate wake of democracy: the 1996 South African Schools Act delegates authority both to provinces and to governing bodies, where positions are mostly held by parents. What has been lacking, however, have been systematic efforts to support governing bodies to take on this putative developmental role. The focus of education reform overwhelmingly has been technocratic: strengthen bureaucracies; improve teacher training; fill infrastructure gaps. This is an incomplete agenda: one which does not leverage the opportunity created by the 1996 Schools Act – but, on the contrary, views it as an obstacle to managerialist “fixes”.

To be sure, systematic analyses show that the impact of efforts the world over to strengthen participatory governance of schools has been mixed. Our school-level case studies suggest that evidence of mixed impact is hardly surprising. The key differentiator is not capacity. The influence of horizontal governance on performance (for good or ill) depends on the relative influence of developmental and predatory stakeholders. Parents know whether teachers show up, and whether they bring honest effort to their work. What matters for the efficacy of participatory, school-level governance is power.

This is where active citizenship can come in. The crucial task for initiatives aimed at strengthening horizontal governance is to help empower developmental actors within governing bodies, parents and the broader community – helping to build networks that link governing bodies with one another as a way of sharing learning as to “good practices”, and potentially providing mutual support in the face of predatory pressures.

Support for school-level governance is no panacea. Children certainly gain when teachers improve their skills, and when schools are better resourced. However, trying to get these things by changing how bureaucracies work is, at best, a slow process. Bureaucracies are embedded in politics; far-reaching improvements depend on very specific, and very difficult-to-achieve, political conditions. But there also is abundant evidence that a non-hierarchical entry point for improving educational outcomes has real potential to achieve gains – not always-and-everywhere, but in some schools, some of the time. Perhaps it is time to complement ongoing efforts to strengthen hierarchy with something different. DM