Education accord gives hope to our pupils
Government, business and communities must come together to help our struggling schools, writes Mary Metcalfe
THE framework for the New Growth Path (NGP) developed by the Department of Economic Development is a set of strategies that seek to weave coherence across government departments and to constructively occupy the spaces that interrupt the work of separate departments and the efforts of business and civil society to achieve maximum alignment across our economic and social strategies.
The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), in its consideration of the proposals made in the NGP, has been negotiating several accords committing the government and its social partners to collectively achieve a set of bold, imaginative and effective strategies to create the millions of new jobs South Africa needs.
This is an example of the partnership between the key social actors of labour, business and civil society envisaged by the National Planning Commission in its diagnosis that it will be the "ethics, actions and choices of our country's leaders and its citizens that will determine whether we complete the transformation promised in 1994 or step back into a stagnant, divided, second-class country".
Nedlac has taken seriously the centrality of improving education if we are to create decent work, reduce inequality and defeat poverty. Education quality improvement has been elevated by shared agreement in this accord to a key socioeconomic intervention. It is a recognition that an improvement in education will require the efforts of all sections of South African society. The accord echoes key recommendations of the Development Bank of Southern Africa's 2008 Education Roadmap that prioritised the development of a social compact for quality education.
Nedlac must be congratulated that this prioritisation of education has meant that the Accord on Basic Education and Partnerships with Schools is one of the social accords arising from the consultation on the New Growth Path.
It represents a significant moment: we have collectively faced the reality that the state continues to invest resources in education without achieving any improvements in quality.
Continuing failure saps teachers' energies and the professional self-esteem so necessary to their confident leadership and enthusiastic efforts.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced in June that the 2011 assessment of more than six million learners found that in Grade 3, the national average performance in literacy was 35%, while the national average in numeracy was 28%. In Grade 6, the national average in languages was 28%, with a national average of 30% for mathematics. Little, if any, progress has been made.
This is a great disappointment for families whose hopes for the realisation of the evident potential of their children are frustrated. It is a heavy weight of national failure dragging down any national aspirations for an equitable, quality education for all, especially the poor.
This is not to say that nothing is being done. Indeed, the country is blessed with many people and organisations that are passionate about education. Across the country innovative work is being done by NGOs and in initiatives supported by business and other donors; the government has developed and has consulted extensively in careful strategies to improve education - including better teacher development plans, the improvement of infrastructure as well as curriculum review; all education unions and government are working with educations stakeholders in the national Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign; the ruling party has prioritised and is leading a disciplined focus on attendance and engagement by teachers and learners; many teachers are working with commitment despite often difficult circumstances; and countless parents and communities work tirelessly to support and sustain schools. All over South Africa initiatives are flourishing which seek to bring change to education.
But we are not aligning these efforts to achieve the impact that we need. Public- and private-sector contributions to the improvement of schooling have a limited impact because efforts have been fragmented; learning has not been shared; and innovations have been isolated from system change.
This call to action from the highest level must now be expressed - and with a clear and joint programme of action in a form which will breathe life into the Accord on Basic Education and Partnerships with Schools at every level.
The accord commits social partners at community level - shop stewards, local business leaders and community leaders - to partner with schools and work together to change the mindset among teachers, pupils and parents in order to rebuild dysfunctional parts of the basic education system. In so doing, these social partners will ensure quality education for learners, particularly in poorly performing schools.
The campaign will encourage the implementation of whole-school development programmes with individual businesses working collectively and trade unions or community-based organisations assisting such schools to develop proper governance, high standards of teaching, basic discipline and an adequate supply of essentials including textbooks.
These commitments must now be manifest in a clear, comprehensive and effectively coordinated joint strategy which is rigorous; informed by careful reflection on experience; results-focused; committed to by all; and which aligns all contributions.
This has been a missing element. We can make our energies mean much more than the sum of all the individual efforts. The impact of these efforts can be multiplied by such a programme of action which brings communities into focused relationships of support and mutual accountability with the schools that should be integral to community life.
We also know that many excellent policies have not brought the hoped-for results because there have not been effective channels of change.
And so these good intentions have not taken root.
What is needed is a model for coordinating and managing this energy and action in a focused plan towards clearly defined results. Models already exist for harnessing the commitment of all stakeholders at school level in jointly agreed programmes of action focused on improving the performance of pupils. These models can provide a basis for developing a national model in which we learn and do, and together make schools and districts work better.
Any programme to systematically improve education will depend on alignment between stakeholders at every level across the country.
The national accord is a call for action. It is an expression of a broad social desire for and commitment to establishing something we all can believe in, something we can contribute to and make work and, by so doing, together support government in the delivery of a better quality of education across South Africa. The Development Bank is one of the organisations that will "step up to the plate" to contribute to the success of the accord.
As educationists and communities we can, and must, seize the opportunity to turn the shared national commitment which the accord represents into replicable, concrete programmes that result in improvements in the performance of pupils. We cannot fail.
- Metcalfe is a sector specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa