by Carmen Smith

Transforming education

State funding for alternative schools urgently needed

Experts advise this is the best time for education ransformation
Investment in education

The No Excuses Schools dialogue – made possible by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Mutual & Federal and the Sandton Convention Centre – brought together teachers, learners, business and education leaders to address how to transform education in the country.

Rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen, underlined the imperative for change: “We made a promise to our children, all our children, in 1994 – we dare not fail them.”

“Every child in this country has the capacity to learn, to love, to imagine, to explore, to remember, to care, to calculate and to write,” said John Gilmour, executive director of LEAP Science and Maths Schools – one of 23 organisations that make up the SA Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC). Gilmour joined Professor Jansen and American visitor Mike Feinberg, who co-founded the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP).

KIPP is part of the United States’ charter school system – publicly funded but fully independent schools. This, asserts Feinberg, is key to creating choice for low-income families and challenging regular state schools to do better.

“What we need are systems of schools, realising that one size does not fit all. The best role that government can play is to allow and oversee enough quality schools of different models to provide communities what they need and want for their children.”

The SAESC, including schools as diverse as Inanda Seminary in KwaZulu-Natal, Ridgeway Sumbandile in Limpopo and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, is pushing for the creation of a new funding model based on this principle. The model would see government money following the student into the school, and create a network of free public schools - fully independent from government but accountable for their results.

“We don’t expect anything more or less than what regular state schools are getting,” said Feinberg, a statement that Gilmour echoed: “We are not asking for special funding - just funding that is equal to what is being spent in state schools. We want to be part of the government solution.”

Although the experts, including Feinberg with over 20 years’ experience in education, agree that there are no silver bullets for fixing South Africa’s underperforming education system, these schools are achieving results that should make anyone interested in education sit up and take notice.

The six LEAP schools, for example, take in young people facing the most serious academic and social challenges, but manage to achieve an average 94% Grade 12 pass rate with 72% of matriculants pursuing tertiary studies. KIPP (87% of whose students are from low-income families) has been similarly successful: 84% of KIPP students go on to university and KIPP’s university completion rate is four times the national rate of students from low-income communities.

These are not elitist academies, cherry-picking the best students who would have probably made it to university anyway. They are schools that make no excuses and have high expectations for every one of their students.

There are common success factors in ‘impact schools’. Graeme Bloch, from the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, reported on the event: “Manage schools well, extend the school day so there is time for everything, don’t focus only on maths and science but encourage the kids to be whole people who also do sports and culture, look at ourselves and our own prejudices and wounded-ness.”

Feinberg made the ingredients of success sound simple: “great teaching and more of it”, to which he quickly added, “Easy to say, hard to do.”

He explained, “What helps great teaching to happen is the function of great leadership. Because horrible leadership will ensure it never shows up."

Said Gilmour, “South Africa needs to grow and develop a new layer of leaders in education quickly – we cannot afford to wait for 15 years."

LEAP is already demonstrating that charter-type schools can work in the diverse South African context with successful, no-fee schools serving communities from rural Limpopo to Alexandra township. “The LEAP story says that whether it’s Langa, Gugulethu, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Jane Furse or Ga-Rankuwa, children are ready and waiting; it is simply a case of unlocking the opportunity.”

In LEAP and the other ‘no excuses’ schools at the event, we have the practical beginnings of a charter school system for South Africa. What is needed, agree the experts unanimously, is collaborative pressure to realise a funding model that will allow the system to grow and thrive. And the time is now.

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