“Madness”, Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result”. This is a not-unreasonable description of the discourse of how to improve South Africa’s education system (and systems in many other countries, too). Study after study gets conducted; many show, in one carefully controlled setting or another, how this-or-that intervention demonstrably improves learning outcomes. Then comes the inevitable corollary proposal: “Fix the bureaucracy – and have it scale up the ‘this-or-that’ intervention – and the learning crisis will be over”.
Change doesn’t happen that way. As the 2018 World Development Report Learning to Realize Education’s Promise highlights brilliantly, the above approach confuses the proximate and underlying causes of poor learning outcomes. Of course the proximate causes matter – but they can only be addressed if the underlying governance conditions are at least ‘good enough’. As I explore in a three-part policy-oriented series written for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, ‘fixing the bureaucracy’ is not a prescription for addressing governance weakness; it, too, confuses, proximate and underlying cause. What is called for is a more far-reaching effort to evoke agency across a broad range of stakeholders – both at school-level, and more broadly. Here are links to each of the three articles in the series: #1: What’s a good bureaucracy worth: the case of the Western Cape; #2: Schools can work – even when bureaucracies don’t; #3: It takes active citizenry to get good schools.
For all of the neglect in South Africa of participatory approaches along the lines of those highlighted in the articles, such approaches have deep roots in South Africa’s liberation struggle, and are echoed in the call for ‘active citizenship’ in South Africa’s 2012 National Development Plan:
“Active citizenship requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society…..Leadership does not refer to one person, or even a tight collective of people. It applies in every aspect of life…..To build an inclusive nation the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society, and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other.”
Addressing the challenges of South Africa’s education system requires more than a technocratic and managerial fix. What is called for is a re-framing of the reigning idea of how development happens – engaging with perceptions of interests, and reigning ideas, in a way which brings to centre stage the opportunity and responsibility of citizens to take on an active role. [This is true not only for the education sector but more broadly, as I explore HERE and HERE, for a ‘new deal’ for South Africa, capable of moving beyond the current political political distemper towards a renewal of hope.] A top-down vision of ‘education for all’ is insufficient. What now is called for is ‘all for education’.