South Africa’s education system is failing, and it’s primarily due to governance issues. To bring about meaningful change, we must explore radical reforms in our governance policies and structures. Our current state is marked by shrinking education budgets, teacher shortages, the teacher quality crisis, undue union influence, urbanisation trends, and the educational setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite genuine effort, it is unlikely that our government will be able to provide quality education for every child by 2030. If we are to avoid a total system failure, the corporate sector and civil society have to step in and support with the delivery of public basic education. And they do.
And yet, national education outcomes remain a disaster.
School governing body failings
So why does the quality of public education in South Africa remain persistently poor, despite significant corporate social investment and non-profit support? One of the answers lies in a fundamental flaw: the South African Schools Act’s (Sasa) provision for the role of school governing bodies (SGBs).
In 1996, Sasa devolved school governance responsibilities to parents and community members, aiming to democratise public education and give South Africans a voice in shaping a vital public service. The act empowers SGBs to set admissions policies, language policies, religious practices, codes of conduct, disciplinary procedures, and even the school timetable.
It gives the SGB the power and responsibility to decide the times of the school day, interview and make nominations for teacher and principal appointments, and to maintain the school’s property, buildings and grounds.
At face value, this seems a progressive piece of legislative reform and today unions, activists and communities staunchly fight for and defend their democratic right to govern schools. Upon closer inspection, this fierce defence of a “democratic right” may be misguided. Our governance model has not created a more equitable public education system. It has only widened the inequality gap.
Inequality and corruption issues
The right to determine admissions, languages, and fees has allowed predominantly white and privileged communities to maintain and “protect” their school intake. Only in recent years have many begun to adapt their admissions and language policies (often under duress from provincial governments), encouraging a broader and more diverse intake of learners.
These schools hold a tremendous advantage, as they are able to elect SGB members from privileged parent communities, benefitting from their expertise, resources, and networks, which contribute to the school’s performance and reputation.
Conversely, less-privileged communities elect parents with limited education and expertise to manage school affairs. This disparity is somewhat mitigated by SGB training programmes, but their impact is limited, as many of these parents are illiterate and serve for only three years. The system has set these parents up for failure.
Furthermore, corruption is prevalent in many schools, where SGB positions are viewed as sources of power and access, leading to resource “redistribution” within the school community.
Whether it’s capacity or corruption, weak governance perpetuates lacklustre leadership, poor teaching, low learner outcomes and inadequate infrastructure. It’s important that we have parent and student governance representation in education to ensure pupil and community voices are heard.
But the role of parents on SGBs in South Africa goes well beyond this and means, that in the majority of our schools, we are placing the lives of children in hands that cannot, or will not, care for them. Pouring more funding and resources into these schools is like pouring water onto sand.
If we are to raise the bar for the majority of our schools and begin to eliminate inequality, we need greatly improved governance capacity in every school — not just the former model C schools.
The Bela Bill (Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill) goes some way towards addressing these governance issues. But in further centralising education, we circle back to the issue of limited state capacity contributing to an underperforming system. Our schools don’t just need improved governance structures and policies — they need people who are able to govern well.
I propose three models that could address some of the structural issues contributing to weak governance, as well as the inequitable distribution of technical capacity across our school communities:
Systematically target, contract, and co-opt additional technical capacity to SGBs
Current policy allows for the co-option of voting and non-voting members to the SGB. Co-opted voting members serve for a limited period of 90 days in the event of an elected member’s departure, while co-opted non-voting members are appointed for the full term based on their expertise.
This model presents an immediate opportunity for individuals and organisations within the private sector and civil society to do more than volunteer or donate money. It offers an opportunity to play a significant role in school improvement by serving on the SGB.
As co-opted members hold no voting rights, it would be prudent for partnerships of this nature to be supported by department-regulated contracts with agreed-upon performance indicators, with accountability for quality outcomes applicable to both the SGB and co-opted members.
Introduce contract management public-private partnerships with a 50/50 split on the SGB
In 2016, “Collaboration Schools” — a new type of public school — were introduced in the Western Cape to increase funding, governance, and management capacity in no-fee government schools. Collaboration Schools partner with non-profit school support organisations, who are granted 50% of governing body votes.
The Western Cape Education Department oversees school performance and holds both the school and operating partner accountable within the public education system. After seven years, this model is showing signs of success despite initial resistance.
Legislative reforms in 2018 support this model, which was recently upheld in court despite challenges from Sadtu and Equal Education. Given the education system’s significant funding and capacity constraints and the underlying governance issues we face, national government should consider adopting this model more broadly.
Increase the state subsidy for private schools from 60% to 100%
A third option to mitigate for limited governance capacity in school communities is to outsource it entirely.
“The Sasa provides for the right of persons to establish and maintain an independent school, and for the registration of an independent school by the Head of Department, under conditions consistent with the Constitution. The Act enables the provincial MEC to grant a subsidy to a registered independent school, in terms of norms and minimum standards determined by the Minister of Education (sections 45-46,48).”
Subsidies are paid on a five-point scale, depending on the school’s fee level and socioeconomic circumstances. Schools that charge fees more than 2.5 times the provincial average estimate per learner (Paepl) are not eligible for the subsidy.
This section in the act sets a precedent for the state to effectively outsource the provision of public education to donor-funded no-fee schools, and low-cost private schools — thereby increasing access to affordable quality education for all, and providing a neat solution for the funding, resourcing and capacity constraints the public system faces.
South Africa’s public education system is in dire need of reform. The governance model has exacerbated inequality and hindered progress. Without enough schools, teachers or funding, it seems government should not be asking whether they should introduce new public-private partnerships models in education, but rather how.
Only through these radical reforms can we set our education system on a fundamentally different trajectory, providing quality education for all South African learners. DM