Johannesburg - The country’s district education offices are critical to the system, yet they suffer staff skills inefficiencies.

A newly published academic paper has argued that “technical inefficiencies, especially in the management of public funds for education”, are contributing to poor education service delivery in South Africa.

The London School of Economics and Political Science study is based on “two micro-level surveys” conducted at 175 public primary schools and 13 district education offices in the North West and Gauteng provinces.

Nana Adowaa Boateng, the economics scholar who researched the study, found that South Africa actually has a “well-planned decentralised structure to administer education”. But the “districts have significant human resource constraints”.

“Capacity is often lacking and record-keeping, particularly of financial information, is very poor.

“Lack of technical efficiency has resulted in misappropriation of funds (leakage) and extensive delays in remitting funds to schools.”

The direct consequences of these inefficiencies include misappropriation of funds meant for public schools, late payment of staff, high level of staff turnovers and dismissals and schools not receiving the necessary technical support.

Such technical support could be advice to teachers on methods of teaching the new curriculum. Schools also need monitoring to ensure they have all learning and teaching resources needed.

The district offices are a link between national and provincial basic education departments and the roughly 25 000 public schools.

But they were not mandated to publish their financial statements, the study said. Their financial “anomalies” are “corrected” by provincial offices. This is despite some of the districts and regions having admitted that over-spending and under-spending had occurred in the past, it added.

“This indicates that any mismanagement of funds at the district and regional level would be known only by provincial authorities and not by the public at large.”

The offices also suffer staff shortages, Boateng found.

In fact none of surveyed district and regional offices in Gauteng and North-West Province was fully staffed.

Survey results showed that vacancy rates ranged from 13 percent (Tshwane North district in Gauteng) to 43 percent (Joburg West district in Gauteng), “with significant variations within provinces”.

“Inadequate staff members or vehicles could impede technical efficiency, in which case some schools would not receive the necessary technical support.”

It’s no wonder why some schools barely get monitoring visits from district officials.

Boateng found that some schools did not have a single district official visit in a term.

“In Gauteng, however, there were instances of only one visit in a year. Some North West schools did not see a district inspector during the year.”

Boateng indicates in the study her findings are based on research she conducted in 2007.

But this week she told The Sunday Independent this shouldn’t dispel the findings: “The paper is based on a PhD study that took years to complete. This is the reason for the ‘cold’ data. It is not unusual for academic studies to use non-recent data given the time it takes to complete a report.”

In addition, recent debacles indicated that efficiency of district offices was still not vastly improved, said Boateng. “I’m also doubtful if there have been a lot of changes in the education system since 2007. If anything at all, we hear of worse things happening in terms of technical efficiency, eg failure to deliver textbooks.”

Phumla Sekhonyane, spokeswoman for the Gauteng Education Department, said they had since addressed inadequacies found by the researcher.

“The study is now irrelevant as the department has put a number of measures including District Realigned Model to address some of the shortcomings identified by the study eg districts receive priority in terms of filling posts.”

There was now high visibility of district officials at schools offering support, said Sekhonyane.

“We have put in place a rapid response system where the department responds just in time, especially with regard to incidents at schools, resourcing, and onsite support to educators.”

She said the province had “begun to see the impact of the realigned structure especially in the area of learner performance”.

The matric pass rate in Gauteng increased from 71.8 percent in 2009 to 87 percent last year.

“This sustained improvement in results show that our strategies coupled with the realigned structure are indeed bearing fruit.”

The North West Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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Sunday Independent