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From the Inside: We must walk the last mile

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

We can tick all the boxes we like to ensure the delivery of expensive equipment to schools. If it can’t be used, it is worthless.


Of all the management fads that come and go, the idea of “management by walking around” is arguably the most useful.

Coined by the American business management guru, Tom Peters, it means going to see (and listen) for yourself if you want to find out what is really going on.

Nowhere is this more important than in government. Most senior managers and politicians battle to find time for this crucial activity. Although we spend a lot of time on “monitoring-and-evaluation”, we usually do so at a distance, based on reports that pass through many hands before they reach us. I have learnt there is no substitute for going out to see what is actually happening on the ground.

One of the major challenges in government is access to reliable, relevant data to determine whether policy is producing results. Monitoring and evaluation usually involves checking a laundry list of quantitative targets, the classic tick-box exercise. That is a useful start, but not nearly enough. At its worst, tick-box compliance can actually impede effective delivery.

For example, a “policy unit” in government may set a target of producing four policy papers a year. If it produces all four, the boxes will be ticked without addressing the following questions: was the policy relevant, implementable and affordable? Was it, in fact, implemented? If so, what was the impact? Were the outcomes achieved? If not, why not? Who knows?

Most difficult of all is devising a proper “accountability system” so that individuals are held responsible for failure to implement plans, avoid preventable problems, or resolve them. Government is so large and complex, and the delivery chain so long (and intertwined with others), that it is usually difficult to pinpoint exactly where responsibility lies.

Last week reminded me of all these lessons.

It began on a high note with a series of “stock-takes” on some of our major projects, called “game-changers” for which we use a specific delivery methodology. It involves setting quantitative and qualitative goals, with time-bound targets, and the collection of the relevant data in order to measure whether we are making progress towards achieving the intended outcomes.

It sounds simple enough. In practice it is really difficult, especially when it comes to collecting relevant, accurate data in order to determine whether we are making progress, and if not, where things are going wrong.

One of our major initiatives is an e-Learning “game changer”. Its aim is to ensure that every child has the advantage of internet access, with curriculum-relevant content, to advance the goal of equal educational opportunities and outcomes. Unless we can provide this access in all schools, the “education gap” will simply keep growing.

In particular, we need to harness appropriate e-learning techniques to raise the horrifically low mastery of basic literacy and numeracy in the foundation phase of schooling. Where we have run pilot projects with appropriate software in after-school programmes, the results for reading and calculating have been extremely positive. Now we have to introduce technology in the mainstream classroom.

We are doing so in phases. Our 16 “model schools” selected against a basket of criteria, including good school management, have the full panoply of infrastructure, training and support required to run an effective e-literacy programme in the foundation phase. Or so I thought. The data told us things were in place: Functioning connectivity, trained teachers, learner devices (tablets), appropriate software, technology support.

It was time to see how it was working in practice.

I arrived, unannounced, at the primary school in Khayelitsha at 08:30. The place was spic-and-span. The grounds neat and swept. The children in their classrooms. An excellent first impression. Good choice for a major e-learning pilot, I thought. The principal was at her desk, energetic, positive and welcoming. I wondered whether I would have been able to handle an “unannounced visit” with such aplomb.

We sat in her office and I explained why we were there. I went through the check-list. Yes, said the principal, all the staff had been trained; yes, the training was good, and many teachers had embraced technology; all the tablets had arrived, both for staff and students, as well as the interactive white boards; yes, they had a storage strongroom with adequate security; yes, the technical support was there; yes, our help-desk was working well. The system had gone down, the principal explained, and before the school even noticed it, the help-desk called to tell them about it, and then fixed it within 24 hours.

All very positive. She took me to an adjacent room where she introduced me to the five young people who were reporting for their first day at work. They were the “IT techies”, employed with funding from the Jobs Fund, who had been through a brief training period. Their role is to ensure continuous network functionality, by fixing the inevitable minor glitches that arise with technology. They will also familiarise teachers with the basic check-list to fix problems, before some move on to their next school. The purpose of the techies-on-site is to avoid help-desk call-outs for minor glitches that can easily be fixed by amateurs. (It is amazing how often our help desk has been called to a school because the system is “down” only to find that a cleaner unplugged the power supply to the network in order to vacuum a carpet!)

So are there any problems, I asked?

Yes, responded the principal. “Crime”.

She then explained how the school’s “IT champion” (each school must have one) was accosted by criminals early one evening, while locking up the school after an afternoon e-learning programme. They wanted the school’s keys, presumably to get at computers and tablets. The IT champion was shot, and although he survived, had not yet returned to the school. The after-school programme had ground to a halt because no teachers were prepared to stay on after school any more, fearing for their safety.

The principal asked me to look up, and for the first time I noticed a gaping hole in the ceiling. Thieves had broken in through the roof one night to steal a laptop stored in her office.

I then asked to see the strongroom. The caretaker opened it with a bunch of jailer’s keys. It was packed with a vast array of technology. Laptops, enough age-appropriate tablets for every learner to have their own device; recently delivered interactive whiteboards, still in boxes. All under lock and key for their protection.

I could see they were not being used, but I consoled myself with the idea that, as it was the first week of the new term, things might well be settling down before things picked up pace again.

I then asked to visit a Grade 3 class. This is a pivotal year in primary school. It marks the end of the Foundation Phase when children must be able to read, write and calculate at the right level in order to have the necessary foundation for later learning.

I went into the class with a ratio of 35:1. That is acceptable. The children were quietly working and the teacher was present and teaching. A good start. We interacted. The children were lively and engaged. When it came to technology, several said they had used a tablet or smartphone for education purposes before – but never at school. They had used a parent’s device at home to access information off the internet for projects.

I asked why the devices were not being used at school to support literacy and numeracy. While I got no clear answer, there is little doubt that the key issue is security (even though our laptops are traceable, and can be remotely disabled, if stolen).

The transition from training to actually using technology in the classroom is also a big hurdle for some teachers. The principal confirmed that teachers primarily use the computer network for administrative functions, rather than conveying and enhancing curriculum content.

At head office we had ticked boxes. We knew that everything was in place. But we didn’t know the most important thing – that the huge investment was not actually being used in the classroom, for a reason that we have limited powers to fix.

They say a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step. What they forget to add is that it doesn’t end until the final step, which is often the most difficult.

My abiding image of the Comrades marathon is of the runner who collapsed just before crossing the line. The distance he had traversed with such effort meant little when he faltered at the finish.

Discussions back at the office this week will focus on how we get that primary school to cross the finish line, otherwise the distance we have traversed to put everything in place won’t mean much.

Next stop was a Technical High School where learners are being prepared for apprenticeships, another game-changing project with the potential to make a dent in our unemployment problem. One of the challenges is that matric mathematics is necessary to enter technical fields with good prospects of career advancement. Given the dire situation of mathematics education in many of our schools, there has been significant investment in infrastructure and mathematics e-learning programmes in technical high schools.

On arrival at the school, I was again impressed. We made it through the tight security at the gate. The principal was warm and welcoming and took us into a neat and ordered office. How was the e-learning programme going, I asked? It wasn’t, he replied.


He gave three reasons, which all boiled down to one word: “Crime.”

  1. Their new computers were stolen before they could be unpacked from the boxes.
  2. Shortly afterwards, another burglary resulted in all the school’s legacy computers being stolen.
  3. Then a large consignment of tablets (donated by a cellphone network seeking to fulfil its off-set obligations) was stolen too.

But how was this possible, I asked? Didn’t the school have a fortified strongroom? Yes, replied the principal, but despite the massive security, thieves managed to get through the steel and brick barriers. They took down part of the wall. It must have been an inside job, he surmised. The thieves knew exactly what to go for and where the vulnerable points were. And they must have spent many hours on the job.

We can tick all the boxes we like to ensure the delivery of expensive equipment to schools. If it can’t be used, it is worthless.

I asked to speak to a matric mathematics class. There was a ratio of about 15 learners to one teacher. Excellent. The mathematics teacher had been trained in the e-learning package; so had all the learners. A specialist NGO had been contracted to help facilitate the e-learning tool for the learners, in the classroom. But, the maths teacher explained, nothing had happened because all the equipment had been stolen and the NGO had stopped coming.

Knowing that the software could be accessed via smartphone without data, I asked whether anyone was accessing the material that way. It turned out that very few owned smartphones. Of those who did, they all knew how to access the resources but none had done so. When I asked one young woman why, she answered, “I don’t have time after school”. When I asked her what kept her so busy, she answered, “Watching television.”

I was glad she had been honest, but I had heard and seen enough for one day, and left thoroughly demoralised.

So what did these unannounced visits teach me?

First: It is impossible to draw general conclusions from one or two random visits. Things go very badly in some schools and very well in others, with a wide range in between.

I also learnt that the school visits had not been as random as I thought. My staff had chosen the schools precisely because the data on internet stability and application usage had indicated a problem that required further investigation. That is why they sent me to those particular schools. The available data had been useful after all, because it pointed to what needed further investigation.

It became clear, yet again, why the state’s first duty is to secure a safe environment for citizens. Without security, almost every other endeavour (private or public) is destined to fail, or at least fall far short of potential. Provinces, that have no operational or executive functions over the criminal justice pipeline, cannot address this crisis. But until it is addressed, our ability to fulfil our own constitutional mandate will be severely constrained.

And even, in the future, when the system is fully functional, it may still not be used as envisaged. The state cannot compensate for parents who allow their children to watch television before they have done their homework. To improve learner outcomes requires a long chain of responsibility and delivery, involving many. It is only as strong as its weakest link.

How do we get it right? I wish there was a silver bullet, but there isn’t. In the meantime, I will continue visiting “delivery sites” where the Provincial Government is responsible for providing core services, and see whether our laudable policies and massive investments are being properly used and having the results we envisage. If not, we must find out why, and try to fix things.

With just a year to go till the 2019 election, this takes on a special urgency. I am determined that the work we have done, over the past decade, will provide a strong and steady platform on which to build, for the incoming administration in 2019. We cannot let it go to waste because we cannot walk the last mile. DM


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