MY partner and I socialise fairly extensively and make many new friends in the process. They ask the inevitable getting-to-know-you question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
I then outline the unique role of the GM South Africa Foundation, namely working with all three spheres of the departments of Basic Education and Human Settlements in developing and testing out in practice new models for improving the quality of public school education and state subsidised housing. I then wait for the next question which invariably is: “But surely education is in terminal collapse and can never be saved?”
All sitting round the table then look at me, clearly expecting me to shrug my shoulders and make some vague statement about being an optimist. But I surprise my audience of potential critics by explaining that the public schooling system can in fact be turned around.
The foundation is convinced that, for the success of any plan to lift South African education out of the morass and up to where the outcomes do justice to the education budget, there has to be the political will to take certain essential far-reaching structural decisions and then to implement them actively. In the foundation’s daily on-going interactions with senior education officials and with key politicians, particularly after last year’s general election, it is clear that there is at last a widespread understanding that “business as usual” in education has to be replaced by major changes in how education is delivered across the country.
The starting point for any meaningful educational change has to be an understanding of how public education should be structured in each province without being adversely influenced by what we have at the moment, which is simply a fusion of South Africa’s historic multiplicity of race-based education departments with a “top down” ethic. So how can this restructuring be undertaken?
Let me start with the basics. Over the centuries the world has decided that schools are the most effective way to impart to children the skills they need to survive and prosper in our rapidly evolving society.
A fundamental question is therefore whether our schools can manage effective skills development and growth on their own. The straight answer is a definitive “no”.
While our schools could do much more themselves, most of them have very little understanding of the multiplicity of the components of school effectiveness. In partnership with the Department of Basic Education, the foundation has been piloting and refining a detailed whole school self-evaluation instrument.
For the first time in its history, each school can use this web-based instrument to determine its particular strengths and weaknesses, and then use this information to design its own school improvement plans based on a clear understanding of its areas of weakness. All of these school improvement plans then form the basis of circuit improvement plans which in turn produce district improvement plans and then provincial improvement plans.
But how will schools identify creative ways of formulating school improvement plans? Since its establishment exactly 20 years ago, the foundation has worked in many of Port Elizabeth’s schools and with departmental officials in conceptualising and piloting a wide range of training programmes.
These include governance training, a “bottoms up” approach to boosting the leadership abilities of school principals, bringing parents to the education table, peace education, addressing barriers to learning, a “backpackers” youth skills development project, training teachers to counsel and mentor pupils, literacy training, improving curriculum delivery, building solid foundations and whole school development.
Schools can select any of these detailed models which match their needs and include them in their school improvement plans. In line with the foundation’s motto of “we give everything away except money”, we are actively sharing these models with all other interested agencies by means of direct interaction and through our website at www.gmsouthafricafoundation.com .
Throughout a school’s on-going process of determining its needs and implementing appropriate school improvement plans, the Department of Basic Education has to play an active role. This must not be in the form of circulars from unseen officials in remote provincial offices but by hands-on assistance inside the schools.
For more than 10 years the foundation has been encouraging the provinces to restructure themselves using a decentralised approach which we have conceptualised based on our experiences over the years. This decentralised district office model reduces the bureaucracy at provincial office level and increases the staffing levels at district offices by establishing circuit teams of up to 10 education specialists.
The numbers and skills of each circuit team will depend on the overall needs of the 30 or so schools in that circuit. These circuit teams visit each school in their circuit each month according to a schedule and provide on-site practical assistance across the spectrum.
In conclusion, the foundation is highly optimistic about the future of both the whole school self-evaluation instrument and the decentralised district office model. First, in partnership with the foundation, the national office of the Department of Basic Education will be piloting whole school self evaluation this year in 25 schools in each province and, if the pilot is successful, intends to take it over for national implementation in all South Africa’s schools next year.
Second, the decentralised district office model has played a major role in influencing the new national policy to restructure the provinces which has recently been drawn up by the national office of the Department of Basic Education.
As the foundation’s ultimate goal in all of its activities is to achieve national replication of all of its new models which have proven their effectiveness in practice, this year looks like being a very exciting year for us as well as for South African education.