Education spending needs close scrutiny

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Where is all the national Budget’s spending on education going? Because it is clearly not contributing proportionate results for the amount of money dedicated to it.

The 2013 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum ranks the quality of South African primary education at 133rd in the world and that of higher education and training at 89th.

In 1999, Sugata Mitra headed into rural India. He took with him a powerful computer, a touch pad and a strong internet connection, and installed them into a wall that had open access to the public.

Unsurprisingly, it attracted the attention of children. These children did not speak English (the operating language of the computer installed) and had never been exposed to computers before. One even jumped in fright when he realised that a click changed something on what he later called “the television that talks to you”.

Within eight minutes this child had taught himself to browse. By the end of the day 70 children could browse, many having been taught by other children. After three months they were able to correctly use over 200 English words and in total had learned to operate basic Windows functions, painting, chatting, e-mail, games, educational material, music and video.

In contrast a close contact of mine is a primary school teacher at a well-known private school in the Western Cape. As part of a community service programme they reached out to a local, and far poorer, public school to see what partnerships could be made between the two. While the public school’s results were poor and teaching support was desperately needed, the staff from the private school were shocked to discover that the public school had an abundance of primary teaching material – much of it far more advanced than what they were using themselves. This was part of the government’s big spend.

Other big expenditure includes renovations to schools whose infrastructure is not deemed fit and the purchase of textbooks that often don’t arrive.

Through six years of research, Mitra showed that quality of education in India had no relationship to infrastructure, classroom size or poverty. The main determinant: teacher motivation.

What Mitra’s research shows is that money does not buy education. Yes, it is good to have desks, chairs, textbooks, blackboards and stationery, but if a computer in a wall can teach literacy, logic and language, imagine what a few basic tools and a motivated facilitator could do.

An obscene amount of money is being spent on education in South Africa. If it was being allocated, distributed and used properly, there would be no skills shortage in this country. But to do this we need to stop thinking things and starting thinking people.

Announcing the percentage of the national Budget that will be spent on education each year is a necessary triviality. But what we really need is a day when the allocation of the education budget is announced to tell us what is spent where and how we are progressing.

Being such a fundamental backbone to not just the future of the South African economy but to that of its society, this education budget should be just as analysed, criticised, planned, measured and audited as our national one.

Education is not the silver bullet to all the world’s problems but without it all other solutions cease to exist.

From birth we are hardwired to learn, discover, innovate and progress. Our grand expenditure may have started as a well-meaning attempt to aid this process, but we are so focused on numbers and inventory lists that we have forgotten what it is all for.

Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein.


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