The business of education

When the Dinokeng Scenarios were published in 2009, they presented three possibilites for South Africa’s future: walk apart, walk behind, or walk together.

The scenario team, which comprised 35 of the country’s top leaders, believed it was unlikely South Africans would be able to realise the “walk together” scenario because it was just not in their nature to collaborate across sectors.

The problem was that the outcomes predicted for “walking apart” or “walking behind” were just too ghastly to contemplate.

I am a mother and a homecomer. My family lived a comfortable life in the United Kingdom but we wanted our two daughters to grow up in South Africa, so we made the decision to return to the country we love and see whether we could help to make a contribution.

Being confronted with these scenarios in 2009 brought doubt about our decision to return to South Africa. We did not want to leave again, but we did not want our children to grow up in an unstable environment either. So I made a commitment to somehow help to make the “walk together” scenario a reality.

The scenario imagines the possibility of business, government and civil society co-operating to create a South Africa that works for all. It seems so obvious: if we work together we will have a much better chance of being able to deal with the significant challenges facing the country. However, this is often easier said than done.

One of the most significant issues facing our future is education. The World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report rates South Africa as 131st out of 142 countries for basic education and health. It is rated as 127th out of 142 countries for the quality of primary education. There are only seven countries in the world with education outcomes worse than ours.

Depending on who you speak to, we have between 19 000 and 25 000 failing schools. There are about 14-million children in the South African school system and less than 20% of them are getting the education they need to secure an economically sustainable future for themselves.

The current and future cost of the failure of the education system is enormous for all sectors of society. We already have more than four million angry youths whose dreams have been shattered by our failing education system. We are sitting on a time bomb.

During the past two years I have been working to facilitate cross-sector collaborations in the field of education. From what I have seen and experienced, there is still much work to do if we are going to realise the “walk together” scenario in education.

The most significant challenge is that few people in government tasked with leading change in education have the necessary deep knowledge and experience of how to lead large-scale, complex social change. They may have lots of knowledge and experience of the education system, but this is not enough to facilitate the radical transformation needed.

In the same World Economic Forum report, South Africa is rated as first in the world for the strength of its auditing and reporting standards, and fourth in the world for its ability to develop financial markets. Imagine if we could tap into the collective intelligence of all the brilliant minds in the business sector to deal with the education crisis.

Education officials argue that education is too complex, that they cannot possibly apply the knowledge of leading change from business to education. I disagree. My experience is that business leaders bring a much-needed fresh perspective to education.

In my work with school principals, I have found they all have a story about the way things are that is based on the way they have always done things. When my organisation brings business leaders into a trusting partnership with these principals, they are able to apply the knowledge and experience they have gained through leading change in business. They have learned how to think innovatively about complex challenges where there are no easy answers. They challenge and support the principals to change their stories and to think differently.

It is important to realise that the benefits of these kinds of partnership are never one way. When business leaders get the opportunity to spend time in schools, they learn more about the communities they serve. They are often in awe of the resilience of the principals and teachers, given the difficult circumstances with which they have to deal.

As a society, we have to realise it is no longer acceptable to abdicate the education of our children to government officials and educators. We have to reclaim responsibility for educating our children.

On average, children are awake 5 800 hours a year. They spend at most 20% of this time (1 200 hours) at school, not all of it in the classroom. This means they spend the other 80% at home and in the community. Parents have been expecting educators to produce great outcomes in the 20% of the time they spend with their children while abdicating responsibility for the other 80%.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that holds the key to fixing a broken system. We have found that parents and community members are thrilled about being invited into a partnership with teachers at a school. To achieve this we had to work with teachers to help them to overcome their fears and concerns about having parents more involved at schools, and we had to mobilise parents to ensure that the teachers experienced the partnership as mutually beneficial.

We have been surprised by the transformational impact of a three-way partnership between a business leader, the principal and teachers at a school, and the parents and other members of the community around the school.

I firmly believe these partnerships hold the key to fixing education in South Africa within the next decade.

Louise van Rhyn is the founder of Symphonia for South Africa, a non-profit organisational change practice. See

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