A bigger role for business in education

Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group will donate R100-million over five years to Free State schools. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group will donate R100-million over five years to Free State schools. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

When Cyril Ramaphosa donated R100-million to Free State schools in March and challenged other businesses to do the same, he reignited debate about the most appropriate CSI spend on education. Specialists in the field say businesses that invest in education should not just throw money at problems, but rather help schools build the capacity of educators for better results.

The donation by Ramaphosa's Shanduka Group was matched by the Kagiso Trust and doubled by the Free State education department. A total of R400-million was committed to a five-year project that will target 400 schools in Botshabelo, Thaba Nchu and Fezile Dabi.

The Mail & Guardian reported at the time that the funds would "benefit the schools through infrastructure improvement, as well as development of management skills and teachers' curriculum knowledge".

Ramaphosa challenged other businesses to follow suit: "We want to see companies committing real serious money, as two companies that are black-owned have committed money; real money."

He said he would soon "lead a campaign to get as many companies as possible" to invest in public education.

Louise van Rhyn, founder of educational non-profit organisation Symphonia, welcomed the investment in the sector, but said returns would depend on how the money was spent.
She said that schools do not want to be dependent on businesses, but seek them as partners in providing education.

"I absolutely agree that business has a role to play in education. We just need to be clear about what is the appropriate way. The old style is that business comes with a big cheque and thinks they can assert their authority on schools. That just creates dependency. It is demeaning and disrespectful. You must hear school principals talk about how businesses make donations to feel better and think that everybody should now be grateful."

Van Rhyn said donations need to be appropriate to the needs of a school. "Some schools have rooms where they keep all the stuff that businesses donated to them but they cannot use. They would be better off with another IT teacher or training for a maths teacher," she said.

One of Symphonia's projects matches business leaders with school principals. Instead of asking companies to donate funds, Symphonia asks business leaders to invest time at schools to offer principals insight into organisational, financial and resource management.

"It is a reciprocal relationship and principals are treated as a resource in this process. Businesses bring their knowledge, skills and manpower into the schools. We bring business leaders in as a thinking partner for the principal. The business leader learns from the principal as well," said Van Rhyn.

"You need to spend time at schools and find the real needs. Out of that you develop the right approach and a vision for a school. You help the school find what they need. You cannot just throw money at problems. We need capacity, skills and resources to improve education."

Another vital lesson Van Rhyn has learnt is that principals value partnerships but "hate the idea of adopt-a-school. They do not want to be adopted. You do not adopt a school, you can partner with a school".

"It is not about a quick fix because that is not sustainable. The best way to go about this is for a business to make a five-year commitment to a school and work with it," she said.

Research by the CRF Institute, formerly called the Corporate Research Foundation, shows that a number of major corporations with investments in education choose to intervene at primary school level.

The institute's country manager, Samantha Crous, said many business leaders believe that South African education is in a crisis and they need to intervene to ensure an adequate talent supply for their ranks in the future.

Investment in education is a priority concern among many of the employers listed in the institute's annual survey of top performers, said Crous.

"We are seeing significant investment in training and developing the whole person, with professional and financial services at the very top of the list. This is encouraging; it means corporates are not content to accept a gradual dumbing down of the workforce."

Company programmes to intervene at school level range from bursaries to entrepreneurship training and extra tuition at weekend classes.

"Learners are not getting what they need in schools. This has a knock-on effect at universities. The implications are concerning for South Africa's workforce," said Crous. "It is the school-leaving and graduate talent that is thin on the ground. It is this that corporates are feeling the need to address."

Crous cautioned, though, that it was "not always ideal" for businesses to finance education.

"We should be cautious of companies taking on the role of tertiary institutions. Universities and colleges do not have affiliations that can influence their teaching to the same extent that companies do. We should be vigilant both ethically and ideologically. And we certainly need to keep a close eye on what these professionals are being taught," she said.

Lobby group Equal Education said Ramaphosa's donation "is positive in principle", though getting businesses involved in education can be problematic.

"The efficacy of the donation will depend on the merit in the project. In the past, too many businesses have donated to gimmicks instead of proper investment in infrastructure, provision of textbooks and libraries, teacher training and support. This is where investment is needed from the government and business," said Doron Isaacs, one of the group's leaders. "We urge businesses to co-ordinate their spending efforts with the government and not try to take over the governance of education."

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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