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What should corporates know before investing in education?

Trialogue partnered with Old Mutual and education experts Professor Mary Metcalfe, David Newby and Dr Allistair Witten to explore the complexities of leadership and management in the education sector.

Key findings emerging from the conversation included the following:

  • Understanding the urgency for change in education must be a priority for corporates because the future of the country depends on getting education right. It has to be a firm commitment for a period of time to move beyond gestures, tokens or vanity projects.

  • Corporates that want to get involved must spend time getting to understand the landscape and speaking to all stakeholders to get a deeper understanding of what they are getting into. Building a bigger picture and deepening the conversation can be done through research and connecting with others in the field.

  • South African education has undergone changes to both the legal and policy framework and the curriculum. It has taken time to address these and formulate a response. Small, focused projects have concentrated on reading and maths but we need to improve outcomes on a system-wide basis, stabilising and strengthening the system. We need to focus more on how to take improvements to scale rather than continue with smaller, more focused projects.

  • Increasingly, there has been an interest in collaboration from all role players – there is less arrogance, more willingness to have conversations about what works. Role players are approaching the issues from a learning perspective instead of saying “We know how to do this and we’ll tell you how to do it.”

  • Corporates need to focus on the moral purpose underpinning their interventions, that is, improving the education system in our country. They should not be concerned with marketing hype but with a broader, deeper engagement that eliminates competition for limited resources.

  • Corporates need a systemic view of which areas need to be worked on and what one needs to ensure that a project has optimal effect. Discussions about what a continuum of improvement would look like need to happen. If we started from the early grades, what would be the effect at every stage in the system? Where might there be blockages? Having a view of a continuum allows one to put some of the missing pieces together.

  • When it comes to interventions, one cannot cherry-pick the most interesting or what one thinks are the key levers without understanding how everything fits within the system. There are limitations to partial intervention. Most corporates start with wanting to get people into university, but the starting points should be at 50% of our young people leave school feeling rejected as they have no contribution to make. We need more maths and science skills and people with bachelor passes, but we also need to ensure that there is a complete framework of support in place.

  • Change that sticks needs the buy-in of all stakeholders. Corporates should not take a messianic approach and start with the premise that government or particular departments don’t know what they are doing and need assistance. The conversion should revolve around how to support their priorities. Government is in the business of implementing policy but NGOs and corporates can innovate by developing new projects, whether they succeed or fail. The aim is to come up with new ideas and new approaches to test and learn from. It is about pooling resources. Working with government goes beyond courtesy calls and the odd dinner. The change we want to embed must be incorporated into the work of the department, or corporates are undertaking add-on projects and when funding is withdrawn the effects diminish. Corporates need to think about sustainability within the systems of the department.

  • To ensure sustainability, don’t just look at the school – look at the community surrounding the school, as well as support systems at district level. Identify learning gaps, but take a holistic view – for example, if you choose to focus on high school, ask what needs to be done further upstream to ensure that the next batch of learners going to high school is more proficient in a specific subject area.
  • When it comes to school leadership interventions, which are a key part of investment in education, ensure they are aligned with the real challenges school principals face. The intervention must be implementable within the realities of the labour relations framework, regulatory framework, and governance framework (in terms with how the principal leads with the governing body in line with the curriculum framework). This is part of a complementary intervention, since you cannot improve maths results without improving the management of the school.

  • School leadership and management are about building agency at the sites of improvement to not only deliver on the goals of what you want a particular project to achieve but to ensure some kind of sustainability. Interventions that don’t do this are likely to be short-lived as the school management team needs to integrate the intervention into the operational framework of the school and shape the school culture. Interventions should be about helping principals discover a sense of agency, not about overwhelming them and making them feel inadequate.

  • It is important to develop dedicated leader management programmes for people in schools rather than generic leadership courses that apply to everyone, as the organisational culture is different and the specific needs of the job are different.

  • Corporates need to contribute to learning about educational change but none of us has the answers. To contribute to learning, there must be a clear theory of change, and what you think will change as a consequence of your contribution or intervention. You need indicators to measure the success of this. Where success has not been achieved, there are still valuable learnings to be had. There should be honest reflection on what works and why, not a superficial compliance report that brags about doing wonderful things. It should be a massive, joint learning collaboration that investigates how we can use our limited resources more effectively.

  • Establish a forum in which honest and detailed conversations can take place. It is necessary to analyse what you are trying to achieve and whether or not you have been successful. This is not a PR exercise – leave the marketing department out but include organisations with trustees that take their fiduciary responsibility seriously and want to know that money is being spent wisely.

  • When big players talk among themselves, they miss the depth of work being done by smaller projects, like improving school management or the teaching of maths and science. Analysing the landscape and learning from smaller groups is essential. Collaboration is multi-level and geographically dispersed, so we need to map which efforts are being made across the board to maximise efforts.

  • Questions to ask include:
    - “Am I entering the education space seeking systemic change or trying to improve the lives of a few children?”
    - “What will the long-term impact of this intervention be?”
    - “What needs to be done with the system to receive or sustain this intervention?”
    - “What will happen if we withdraw from a project?”
    - “What are the enabling conditions required at the level of the classroom, the organisational level of the school, and the administrative and institutional level of the district?”
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