Education MEC Debbie Schäfer File photo: INLSA
It is no secret that for a variety of complex reasons, learning outcomes in many historically disadvantaged schools in South Africa are unacceptably low.

Equal Education (EE), a national membership-based organisation with a mandate from 5 000 pupils and parents at under resourced schools, welcomes attempts to mobilise external support for these schools.

We maintain, however, that any experiment aimed at achieving this must be transparent, democratically accountable and lawful. 

We are wary of instances in other countries where well intentioned public-private partnerships have opened the door for more harmful forms of privatisation, or have failed to achieve their intended effects.

One such “experiment” is the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) new school model: “Collaboration Schools”.

At these schools, so-called “school operating partners” (SOPs) are entitled to majority representation on school governing bodies (SGBs). 

To allow for this, the WCED is proposing wide-ranging amendments to provincial education laws that contradict the South African Schools Act (SASA).

New teacher appointments at these schools also involve the transfer of government money to Collaboration Schools, who have full discretion over appointing and dismissing teachers who are paid by the state.

These models follow a growing global trend of addressing public education challenges through partnerships with private entities.

In fact, the WCED draws specifically on the Academy School model in the United Kingdom and Charter Schools in the US. Evidence about the effects of these school models is, at best, mixed.

While EE is sensitive to the fact that there are many nuances to non-state involvement in education, at the very least EE believes any such involvement should be grounded in sound education principles that advance teaching and learning - in addition to being transparent, democratically accountable and lawful.

Breaching education laws

While EE is not opposed to testing innovative education models, we recognise that experimentation in education is a very sensitive undertaking - it involves the lives and futures of pupils. 

Therefore, it should not be contentious that EE seeks to ensure that Collaboration Schools do not operate in breach of existing education laws.

To this end, EE has obtained independent legal advice on the lawfulness of the SGB composition of Collaboration Schools. We were advised that the inclusion of SOP representatives as voting members with a majority on SGBs, is unlawful.

Section 23 of SASA provides an exhaustive list of people who may be elected to SGBs with voting rights: parents, teachers, non-teaching staff and certain pupils. Community members may be co-opted without voting rights.

The provincial regulation that the WCED relies on to establish Collaboration Schools, allows the HOD to approve a school’s request for an alternative SGB composition. 

This provision empowers the HOD to approve different combinations of the same categories of members as well as their numbers, subject to certain prerequisite conditions. 

It does not, however, empower the HOD to introduce new categories, nor to deprive parents of a majority representation.

We have seen this sort of thing with other efforts at privatisation on the continent (most notably with low-fee private school operators Bridge International): experiments in privatisation are set up on dubious legal footing and then operate unlawfully until they are so entrenched in the system, that it is difficult to close them down without causing disruption.

The WCED might not have intended to act illegally. However, where we allow government to bend the law to establish one type of school, nothing prevents them from bending it again to establish another type.

We have already seen how the WCED adapted donors’ proposal of Collaboration Schools - where the SOP, not the donor, is involved in running the school - and now seeks to also introduce Donor-Funded Schools, where donors themselves can, so to say, “buy” direct representation on SGBs. This is what is proposed in draft amendments to provincial legislation.

Unintended consequences

As it stands, the draft legislation published for public comment gives no assurances that SOPs will be non-profits. Even if, in response to pressure from EE and other civil society organisations, SOPS are eventually limited to non-profit organisations, serious concerns remain.

EE is not trying to be unnecessarily alarmist. However, we need to be clear that the introduction of new legislation on privately run public schools can have consequences far beyond its original intentions.

Charter Schools in the US are illustrative. Initially established as non-profit independent schools serving pupils from low-income families, the model has morphed into a system with thousands of schools, of which 15% are operated on a for-profit model.

Experience with Charter Schools shows that even where schools are run as non-profits, they may still act like for-profit companies. 

For instance, in 2007 BASIS School Inc, a network of non-profit Charter Schools, paid the married couple running the network $315 000 a year, plus nearly $39 000 in benefits. A local public school principal was paid around $86 000 at the time.

As the consequences of lax regulations and poor oversight have started to take their toll, support for Charter Schools has sharply declined over the past few years. There is no reason to expect that taking Collaboration Schools to scale will play out differently.

Democratic accountability

For profit or not, Collaboration Schools are likely to introduce other well-known aspects of privatisation: undermining democratic school governance and introducing market principles into education.

One of the core aspects of the model is how it restructures SGBs. Since its launch, those behind the initiative have failed to satisfactorily explain why a model of private donations and non-profit support cannot be established without undermining the democratic nature of SGBs.

If the project was serious about grappling with this question, the pilot would have included schools where SOPs are co-opted on to SGBs without voting rights.

By shifting power from democratically-elected public representatives to private organisations, this model hands over power to entities that have no public mandate.

This move signifies that the state has opted to hand over SGBs to private actors, rather than invest in capacitating elected members - something it has not done in any meaningful way since SGBs were formally established in 1996.

Market logic about learning

Importantly, privatisation is not only about who has decision-making power, but also the logic that governs schooling.

An alarming trend in privatisation efforts has been the assumption that generic management skills, rather than an intricate understanding of learning, are what is necessary to transform schools.

This concerning tendency fails to recognise that most important management decisions in a school involve educational considerations: deciding how and whether teacher performance should be measured; determining what constitutes an underperforming teacher; procuring textbooks; managing discipline; and even deciding which “external experts” to bring in to compensate for your own lack in educational knowledge.

Given that a large number of those running the Collaboration Schools project have business or management backgrounds (there are also a few educationists involved and some SOPs have more education experience than others), the project is at risk of falling into the same trap.

As an illustration, a Johannesburg-based company that conducts teacher training in Collaboration Schools recently advertised a position in Cape Town to develop teacher-training curricula and to monitor and evaluate teachers. 

The managing director of the company sent out an e-mail advertising the role, with the caveat that “no particular education experience [is] required”.

Where school managers (and teacher trainers!) lack education experience, they can easily be swayed by market logic, which present learning and school management as a very linear process. 

In other parts of the world the long-term consequences have been a narrower understanding of education, with an overemphasis on test results and performance-based accountability.

These are all aspects of education reforms that the 2017 Unesco Global Education Monitoring Report warns are not supported by evidence. It also cautions that these reforms often undermine rather than enhance accountability in schools.

Against this background it is worth keeping in mind that Collaboration School SGBs are much more involved in the day-to-day running of schools and the management of teaching than ordinary SGBs. 

They are also given far more powers than any other SGBs - to hire and fire publicly funded teachers, to adjust the curriculum as they see fit, and so forth.

Keeping watch

It is concerning that EE’s attempts to hold this intervention accountable have been framed as an opposition to improvements in under resourced schools. 

In fact, it is precisely with interventions targeting our most vulnerable schools, that our society must be most vigilant.

As support for similar school models in the US and UK is waning, we need to be careful not to repeat the same mistake South Africa made with Outcomes Based Education: adopting international interventions that have not been successful elsewhere.

There is little question that the public education system could benefit from more funding and capacity. In the current climate of rocketing national debt and debt-servicing costs, government departments will increasingly start looking towards the private sector and international philanthropists to bolster budgets.

We have to ensure that arrangements that flow from a shortfall in social funding happen on terms that we are comfortable with, and that in the process, we don’t create undemocratic systems we will later come to regret.

Motsepe is the general-secretary of Equal Education and McFarlane the deputy head of policy and training