When less intervention in education practices produces much more

The challenges facing public school education have been well documented. Among the many indicators of poor performance, we now know, for instance, that the average grade three literacy achievement is 35%, and numeracy is 28%; in grade six, the language average is 28% and mathematics is 30%. 

And yet South Africa spends around 15% of total state expenditure or 5% of gross domestic product — R164-billion in 2013-2014 — on its basic education system.

It would be naive to think there are any quick fixes. There are not. But giving up on the youth of our country and our future generations is not an option. 

So the question is: What can feasibly be done that will have the biggest possible impact in the shortest possible time and on the most cost-effective basis?

As a starting point, it must be accepted that any initiatives to address the current challenges have to be driven by the basic education department — quite simply, it holds constitutional accountability in this regard. 

However, harnessing other interested parties and role players into framing solutions is critical. Here, the department is to be commended for establishing the National Education Collaboration Trust last year, which aims to do just this — help to frame solutions. Bringing together government, business and education service providers, the trust has set itself the ambitious target of improving schooling in 10 of the country's 81 school districts over the next three years. The challenge will be to determine a framework and an approach that will be game-changing by setting schools in these districts on a sound and sustainable improvement trajectory. 

Needu report
Some very important insights in this regard are to be found in a report published last year by the department's national education evaluation and development unit (Needu). This focused on teaching and learning in the foundation phase (grades one, two and three) and argued that the starting point, or necessary condition for any improvement in performance, is institutional functionality at the level of the school. 

This is primarily the responsibility of the school principal, who has to be competent in management functions that include human resources, industrial relations, conflict, data, resources and finance. The report could also have included critical competencies such as school planning, governance and problem-solving. 

Research by the Principals Management and Development Programme, in which I am involved, indicates certain fundamental practices that can be used as a litmus test for school functionality. These include an effective school management plan, regular and effective school management team meetings, effective monitoring of curriculum coverage, management of school feeding and control over absenteeism and timekeeping. Lost time in the foundation phase, in forms such as tardiness and wasted time in class, has been conclusively shown to increase developmental disadvantage exponentially to levels where the learning opportunities lost can never be regained. 

The Needu report argued that, once foundational school functionality has been established by the principal and the school management team, attention needs to be focused on the classroom. It specified three core knowledge components associated with good teaching practice:

• Subject-matter knowledge;

• Knowledge of the curriculum; and

• Knowledge of the way in which best to convey facts, concepts and ideas to learners.

All these components are critical, and they are woven together in a complex manner to produce sound teaching practice. There are currently two large-scale projects under way, one involving the Western Cape education department, the other the Gauteng department. The former, called Litnum, focuses on know-ledge of subject matter; and the latter, the Gauteng Primary Literacy and Mathematics Strategy, targets teaching methods. They could in due course provide valuable insights on which knowledge areas have the biggest impact on assessment results.

Little demonstrable effect 
How one builds this knowledge and practice at the level of the teacher is the next critical question. Most work to date has focused on direct support to the teacher. However, where this has taken the form of blocks of training time away from the school, it has had little demonstrable effect on improving assessment outcomes. As a result, options such as teacher coaching support are now being trialled. 

The point, however, is that so many coaching initiatives at the level of the individual teacher, even if they prove effective, are ultimately unsustainable — they are simply too costly to sustain for any period of time in South Africa's 24 000 public schools.

So, just as the school principal is now increasingly being held accountable for school functionality, heads of (subject) departments will — together with their school management teams — increasingly have to accept responsibility for helping to build a cadre of teachers who are genuinely effective in their classrooms. 

In this model the departmental head is trained, coached and supported to be able to provide ongoing support and assistance to teachers who form part of their in-school teams. It is this head who should in the first instance be able to assist teachers to identify gaps in their knowledge base or in their practices. This can be termed "vertical support". 

Once these gaps are established, it then becomes possible for individual teachers to identify their own further development requirements. These "horizontal" forms of support might take the form of online support, access to materials or coaching by education department advisers (or external service providers) on subject-matter specifics. 

There are several benefits to this approach. First, driving the development of departmental heads to improve teacher performance is cost-effective and sustainable. Getting teachers to identify their own developmental requirements moves the system from "pushed" to "demand-driven". 

Integrated support teams
The highly stretched subject matter advisers in the basic education department — many with more than 100 schools each to support — could then engage in far more focused  activities. If these advisers are to work closely with circuit managers, in integrated support teams, the latter will be able to assist further in refining areas of need. 

Other critical elements have to be addressed too. The department must ensure that workbooks, textbooks, stationery and other support materials are delivered on time, in full. Vacancies have to be filled with competent staff, and effective staff deployment has to be achieved without increasing the current budget parameters. 

Improvement and performance need to be driven by sound data at all levels of the system and key performance indicators must be expanded from a simple focus on matric results to include dropout rates and university exemptions. 

Many other important factors — such as learner support, parental involvement, promotion of a reading culture, sport and recreational development — all have their place.  The point, however, is that attaining sharp focus and doing a few things well is far better than trying to do everything and not doing it well. In short, the time has now come to make some critical choices. 

Geoff Schreiner is co-founder of the Principals Management and Development Programme, piloted in 2009 and since implemented in more than 2 000 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga

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