Faster growth, higher productivity, increased output, and more innovation can only come with urgent improvements to South Africa’s schooling system.

South Africa needs a genuine ‘skills revolution’ – quite unlike the others previously promised by the government – if its youth are to benefit from the 4th industrial revolution discussed at a 4IR summit last week.

It will not be nearly enough to provide tablets to all school pupils, as President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier pledged. This promise – little more than a gimmick – cannot compensate for the widespread inability of the country’s pupils to read, write and reason.

South Africa spends more on education (some 7% of GDP) than most other emergent economies. However, it continues to get little bang for its extensive buck. Some of the evident failures of its schooling system are well known, for 78% of its grade four pupils cannot read for meaning in any language, while 61% of its grade fives are unable to add or subtract whole numbers.

In March 2019 an International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper recommended urgent improvements to South Africa’s schooling system if the country is to attain faster growth, higher productivity, increased output, and more innovation.

Skills and innovation are vital, the paper stressed, as they bring ‘new products, new knowledge, and new processes that can drive economic growth’. Proficiency in mathematics and science is particularly important – and is a key factor in ‘the high economic growth rates of the east Asia miracle countries’.

However, the government has signally failed to reform dysfunctional schools, despite repeated promises over 25 years. Many factors contribute to poor outcomes, but the most important are ‘insufficient subject knowledge’ and ‘low accountability’ on the part of many teachers, as the IMF paper puts it.

Also deeply influential is the often destructive role of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), a key ally in the ANC’s pursuit of its national democratic revolution (NDR). Sadtu continues to resist performance-based pay, teacher evaluations, or public-private partnerships (the ‘charter’ model, as it is termed in the US) in the running of state schools. Despite the evident successes of these partnerships in the US, the UK, and elsewhere, Sadtu is mobilising against the Western Cape’s decision to introduce similar ‘collaboration’ schools to boost the performance of some of the province’s poorest schools.

Many parents are thus voting with their children’s feet by shifting them out of public schools and into private ones instead. The number of independent schools has doubled since 2000 and now stands at roughly 1 995, many of which offer relatively low-cost options.

Spark Schools, for instance, charges R23 000 a year for primary school and R30 000 a year for high school. It has also recently expanded into Protea Glen in Soweto. Children in the area, who used to spend long hours travelling to suburban schools, are now spared the exhaustion of this daily commute. Parents save on travel costs, and applaud the fact that high-quality schooling is now locally available. 

The capacity to choose schools in this way is currently confined to the middle class. Yet poor parents could be given the same choice by redirecting much of the present schooling budget (some R260bn in the current financial year) into tax-funded school vouchers to be provided to all parents below a certain income level.

Vouchers are already in use in many countries, including the Netherlands (which introduced them as far back as 1917), Sweden, Denmark, and the Czech Republic. Vouchers also operate in various developing countries, including Chile, Colombia, Bangladesh, and Guatemala. In addition, vouchers have been introduced in several US cities, where they have proved particularly popular with inner-city parents.

If vouchers were to be introduced in South Africa, parents armed with them would finally have real choices as to the schools they would like their children to attend. Some might choose those public schools that already perform well. Others might opt for the collaboration model, as developed in the Western Cape. Some would decide to send their children to private schools run by entrepreneurs, such as Spark schools. Others might prefer private schools run by religious institutions or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Some persistently bad public schools would effectively be abandoned and so forced to shut down. Their buildings could then be auctioned to Spark or other organisations, which would refurbish them before re-opening them again. However, most of the state schools which are currently dysfunctional would improve their performance under the pressure to up their game.

There is strong support for the voucher idea from South Africans across the colour line, as a recent IRR opinion poll has shown. This field survey was carried out in December 2018 among a representative sample of 1 010 respondents, all of whom were interviewed by phone in their language of choice by experienced field workers.

Asked if they would like a tax-funded schooling voucher so they could send their children to the schools of their choice, 91% of all respondents – and 93% of black people – said ‘Yes’.  Asked if this would help them more than BEE, 85% of black respondents agreed.

Despite this strong grassroots support for the voucher option, many commentators in the media and elsewhere are likely to oppose it. Some may believe that public provision is intrinsically the best – even in South Africa, where the state is demonstrably too inefficient and increasingly corrupt to ensure sound schooling.

Some commentators are ‘so alarmed at inequality in education’, as analyst Ivo Vegter has written, ‘that they would prefer everyone to be trapped in failing government schools rather than allow some to escape to better private schools.’ Yet refusing parents the option to send their children to such schools is not in the interests of those youngsters. In addition, a voucher system that benefits all low-income parents and gives all schools, including public ones, strong incentives to improve will generate a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Over and above such concerns, however, lies the ANC/SACP/Sadtu commitment to the NDR. The NDR’s overall aim is to shift South Africa, by incremental steps, from a predominantly capitalist to a socialist and then communist system (though the ultimate goal is now rarely mentioned).

The NDR’s immediate objective – in this its second and more radical phase – is to move significantly closer to a ‘socialist’ economy: one in which ‘capitalism is still present’, but ‘the socialised sector is dominant and hegemonic’ and is ‘premised on meeting social needs and not private profits’.

A key related aim is to roll back the capitalist market by ‘decommodifying’ basic needs, such as schooling and healthcare. In NDR thinking, these vital needs should not be treated as ‘commodities’. Nor should their ‘availability and price [be] determined by a profit-maximising capitalist market’.

In reality, of course, the private sector is far more effective at meeting schooling needs than South Africa’s floundering public system. Tax-funded vouchers for the poor will also help ensure equal access and hold down fees through competition and the operation of the market.

The NDR nevertheless demands that education in South Africa should become a state monopoly. However, this is unlikely to function any better than other failing SOEs and government departments. Its primary effect will be to level all schools down to the lowest common denominator.

Any such outcome will betray the hopes of millions of children and parents, who will find themselves confined to dysfunctional schools with no prospect of escape. Resulting poor skills will also keep the growth rate low – and ensure the country never matches the successes of the east Asian ‘tigers’, irrespective of how ‘developmental’ the state might claim to be.

Dr Anthea Jeffery, Head of Policy Research at the IRR, is the author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, now available in all good bookstores and as an e-book in abridged and updated form.

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