How business can help alleviate our education crisis

21 September 2017 - 06:39
School desks
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

It is the one question I hear most on the speaking circuit these days: How can business help solve our education crisis?

It is a critical question. We know the government does not have the financial capacity to address the range or depth of problems from preschool education to university studies to out-of-school youth. Nor does it have the imagination for the transformation of education in difficult places. So let's begin with what the private sector should not do.

For one, do not pretend you are the government. Your investments in education should complement what government does (or is supposed to do) rather than replicate or replace governmental functions. For example, do not spend your money on school infrastructure or the delivery of learning materials.

That is the duty of the government for 13million children in more than 25000 public schools. When you fund the basic functions of government you let officialdom off the hook.

Then, do not fund pupils. Pupils come and go. Fund teachers, for they are the fixed assets, in a manner of speaking, in the education system. You have limited resources. Spend those finite resources on what will have an enduring effect on educational change. It is still true that the quality of an education system cannot outstrip the quality of its teachers. Invest in teacher development and one generation of pupils after another will benefit from teachers who are confident and competent to teach.

Also, do not fund schools or for that matter universities where there is not enthusiasm, energy and the drive for change. For your money to work, you need to invest in education spaces where there already is momentum for change, such as is evident in school leaders who with just a little material support can move the needle with respect to educational performance.

Too many dead horses have been taken to the education waters. The wastage of resources is one thing this country cannot afford; leave that to the government. Make your money count. Too many schools and universities will take any money they can get without a commitment to leverage those resources for big gains in educational achievement.

It is important, therefore, that you give money - or continue to fund education entities - only if there is hard evidence of learning gains among the pupils or students. The days of giving money to assuage the conscience of your company or to enhance your CSI profile are over. The education stakes are far too high for these PR games. Education, too, has a bottom line.

Do not measure your success by the volume of teachers trained or the number of teachers who filled out those silly post-workshop forms and reported an elevated sense of happiness.

South African educators can be remarkably happy if they can spend two days outside of their classrooms being accommodated and fed at somebody else's expense. This is the sole evidence you look for as a result of a business investment: Do the children know more and better as a result of intervention X? If the answer is not clear, withdraw your money.

But do not invest in just any kind of teacher or principal development. We know now that centre-based workshops away from the school or classroom interface simply do not work. These kinds of inputs are more likely to be information-sharing rather than practice-changing interventions in the lives of educators.

There is growing evidence that mentorship-based interventions located within the school ecology on a daily basis (the experts call this dosage) are much more likely to render deep change over time. Yes, mentorship models of change are more expensive initially - a highly experienced physical science teacher working alongside a poorly qualified but committed one - but their effects are more lasting over time.

Evidence matters, especially in this era of great need and limited resources. For this reason the Academy of Science of South Africa will shortly call prominent business leaders around a table to discuss a systematic review of which business interventions yield the best results in science and mathematics education. Those results will be widely disseminated so that every cent counts in private-sector investments in education.

If you must fund bursaries for university students, do not do so in response to political noise from protesters. Target your funding. If you are an accounting firm, invest heavily in the development of chartered accountants from disadvantaged communities. Selection is absolutely key. Follow the progress of each funded student and ensure you give them the full range of support - including holiday internships - to become the best in the profession. As funder you have first opportunity to employ, of course. But simply dishing out bursaries randomly and dusting off your hands is bad investment policy.

Your most important strategic advantage as a funder is that you can spur innovation throughout the education system. Leave the drudgery of normal funding to the state. Your job is to look for new ideas in teacher training or campus-based innovation hubs or the latest advances in the digital humanities.

In other words, think before you give.