Media Release

2 August, 2012

What's it all about?

Keynote address by Penny Vinjevold, Head of Education in the Western Cape, to a seminar organised by the Governing Body Foundation (Western Cape and Northern Cape) on Wednesday, 1 August 2012, at the Oude Molen Academy of Science and Technology, Pinelands, Cape Town.

Good evening and thank you for the invitation to address you on 'what's it all about'. In this short presentation I take this to mean that the Governing Body Foundation and its members are interested in what schools are all about; what should schools provide to the learners enrolled at their school and to their parents. To pose the question more sharply: what should schools offer that no other institution offers? What is their unique or core business?

In this short presentation I will consider what it is that society, citizens and governments expect schools to do. I will then look at the various roles that schools play in the development of young people and pose the question: have Western Cape schools got the balance right in the various roles or services they offer their learners and their parents? Finally, I will provide some suggestions of the questions governors might ask in determining if their schools are adequately providing for their core business and if they have the balance right.

Every year, across the world, three costly and important things happen with unfailing regularity: governments vote large quantity of citizens' taxes to the education budget; billions of parents enrol their children in schools - all anxious to find the very best possible school for their children - and third, in most countries, with only a few notable exceptions, citizens bemoan the state of education. Let us look at what these three annual events mean for what it's all about: what do these events signal about the expectations of schools?

In most countries education receives the largest portion of the budget. South Africa is no exception; and in the Western Cape, in the three years that newly elected governing bodies will govern Western Cape schools (2012 to 2014) over 45 billion rand will be spent on education. And parents will add large sums of money to this total through their contributions in fees and to fund-raising efforts.

What do governments expect schools to do with this enormous quantity of funding? In all education departments across the world the lion's share of the budget is allocated to personnel. And these personnel resources are allocated to schools according to the number of children in the school and the subjects offered. No other consideration, except some equity weighting in South Africa, forms part of the model for determining 80% plus of the budget, that is, the human resource allocation to schools. The human resources are appointed, at least in the best case scenario, on the basis of their specialist knowledge in their teaching subject. In other words there is a clear message in the funding model: schools are to provide tuition to all learners in the subjects of the approved curriculum.

The other large budget items in the education budget are for the conditions that are required to offer tuition: texts, classrooms or infrastructure, transport in rural areas for those who need it, and running costs. So budget allocations suggest that schools are about teaching and learning specialist subject knowledge.

If we turn to the second annual event I listed earlier: every year across the world billions of children enrol in school. In South Africa there is a strong sense of where quality teaching and learning takes place. In the Western Cape many parents and learners go to extraordinary lengths to enrol their children in the best schools they can afford. We see extensive movement across the province and the city of Cape Town as evidence of this; waiting lists at schools and applications 20 times in excess of what schools can physically enrol in grade 1 and grade 8 all point to the fact that parents have a clear idea of what they regard as quality education. For the majority of parents schools must offer the very best tuition possible so that their children can get a matric certificate to allow further study. It seems that this then again supports the notion that the core business of the school is teaching so that every child reaches her potential.

But it is also true that parents and learners expect more that this: they want extra-curricular activities and they want to be sure that their children are safe and exposed to the right values and attitudes. I will come back to this later.

The third annual event we witness is citizens worrying about the quality of their education system. Many countries think their education system is in crisis. One only has to look at the international media and academic journals to see that South Africa is not alone in thinking that the education system is in turmoil. However, in South Africa there are sufficient international and local studies to suggest that there really is a problem in the core business of schools - reading, writing and mathematics. And it is not only the schools that serve poor communities that score poorly on these tests. Learners in our schools that serve middle-class communities do not achieve the test scores that learners of similar socio-economic status living in countries with the same spend as South Africa achieve. The TIMSS studies provide worrying support for this fact.

So if these three factors: budget spend, learner enrolment patterns and views of the crisis in education in South Africa all point to the main role of schools being to provide tuition; to provide the three Rs; to deliver the curriculum; to provide academic knowledge and skills. So is there any real question about what's it all about? It seems that these factors point to the core business of the schools. But is that all there is? Many principals, parents and teachers argue that there is and should be much more to schools than just the academic curriculum. They argue that schools must produce well-rounded citizens; citizens who are caring and have the correct values. This is a strong argument and one the WCED supports. As a result schools go to great lengths to establish a culture or 'traditions' that embody what it means to be a learner at a particular school. Many schools provide visual reminders of the values in the front of every classroom; others believe in walking the talk by showing respect for all learners and teachers; by not being late for class or leaving school early; by encouraging support rather than bullying or initiation of the young and vulnerable. Many schools also offer extra-curricular activities of a cultural, sporting or arts nature. No one can argue against this: the sense of achievement; of camaraderie; of learning; the values of endurance and teamwork - all these are apparent at schools every day as learners participate in extra-curricular activities.

So what's it all about? I suppose it is about balance. And at a macro level the data suggests we may have got the balance wrong. The international studies on school-level tests and workplace productivity studies suggest that in South Africa there has not been sufficient emphasis on the academic, on the curriculum. For the tests and studies show that South Africa performs below other countries that spend less on education; are poorer; have poorer infrastructure; have more poorly qualified staff and more poorly paid teachers. In contrast South Africans do extraordinarily well in Africa and in the world in all manner of sporting codes including extremely expensive sporting codes and this is also true of arts and culture where our dancers, singers and artists have a profile of success way above our size and spend.

So in the 21st Century, in what is called the knowledge economy, what is it that schools should do - what's it all about? Here is something for your consideration: I believe it is first and foremost the responsibility of schools to transmit the specialised knowledge that is the basis for all learning; and to provide the conditions for children to learn this specialist knowledge. It is this specialist knowledge, which is the basis for the key ways of thinking which all children require to advance in the world. Only schools have this mandate and are funded and expected to do this. Some very fortunate children learn this knowledge at home but they do this unevenly. The majority of children will not systematically learn or develop the formal forms of reasoning at home or at extra lessons or at clubs. And as far as we know the verbal and written forms of reasoning are best taught through language, mathematics and music.

Now clearly schools can and do provide other things; but if they do not prioritise this core business, then they have failed their learners and their parents.

It has become popular to say that schools do not prepare young people for the world of work or further study. It is not exactly clear what it is that the young people lack, but employers and colleges and universities hint at both a lack of basic knowledge, a lack of the habits of thinking and working with endurance and precision. Most jobs today have a knowledge base, that is, why it is referred to as the knowledge economy. And the distinction between handwork and head work is becoming increasingly blurred.

What can SGBs do about getting the balance right; ensuring that schools provide the very best possible in their core business and in their extra-curricular offerings? According to the South African Schools Act SGBs are responsible for the admission policy, the language policy and policy on religion, the recruitment and appointment of staff and the budget. I will concentrate on the budget in this presentation. Every September of every school year, SGBs are required to hold meetings with parents to approve the budget. I am told that very few parents attend these meetings. Nonetheless, the SGB must interrogate and is responsible for the development, approval and monitoring of the budget. And it is here that we can take the first decisive step to examine whether the school has got the balance right; does the budget privilege its core business and does it address the needs of all the children in the school: the greatest good for the greatest number? The second step we can take is to examine the School Improvement Plan. The SIP is required by law and it is an excellent document for governors to study. All institutions can and should improve. What does your school strive to improve over the next three years: is it the guarantee that all learners will be provided extensive opportunities every day to systematically and methodically develop the specialised knowledge needed by every child or are days cut short or lessons abandoned in favour of extra-curricular participation and performance? Has your school got the balance right?

The biggest and probably most important part of the budget is the budget for personnel: has the school got the school management team, the teachers and support staff with the requisite knowledge and experience and dedication to ensure that the subjects offered are taught with enthusiasm and expert knowledge in every grade? The SGB has a huge responsibility for this as they nominate and recruit the principal, management team and the teachers for the school. There is a misconception that the WCED provides almost no or negligible funds to fee-paying schools. This is not true. The teachers paid by the WCED must form part of the SGB budget as they are responsible for their recruitment, retention and development. There are schools that employ additional staff and these of course then form an important and expensive budget item. So SGBs need to ensure that the teachers, who do address the core business of the school, are given the appropriate attention. Are all teachers used optimally? Is the school offering too many subjects, which means that there are many small inefficient classes and large language classes? These are all questions the SGB should ask. Finally, because personnel is the largest part of the budget it is important that SGBs ask questions about the recruitment and selection policy of the school; the performance management of all staff; the retention and succession planning and the health of staff. It seems to me that much can be done at relatively low cost to enhance the skills of teachers; their sense of worth and well-being: do we for example consider the warmth and comfort of the staffroom, a place of refuge and recovery for our staff in our budget and actions?

The second budget item we should examine is the provision in the budget for the items essential for teaching - the core business. Two pre-requisites are well established and well understood: texts and infrastructure. Children cannot learn to read and write without texts, whether they are paper or electronic texts. And it is important that all children have the core texts - textbooks and supplementary texts - to advance in the knowledge economy. With pressure and assistance from the GBF, the WCED has now made it possible for schools to plan three-year budgets in advance in relation to their core textbooks. In each year in the next six years, four grades will receive free textbooks for each subject offered. In 2012 Grades 1 -3 and 10 received such books; in 2013 it will be the turn of Grades 4 - 6 and 11 and in 2014 Grades 7 -9 and 12. This allows SGBs to budget from norms and standards allocations and school fees the 'top ups' required for enrolment growth or loss of books in the other grades. Of course a strong ethos and values around book retention and respect for books will go a long way to freeing up funds for other texts and budget items.

The third budget item that addresses the core business of schools that should receive attention is infrastructure especially maintenance and running. Many of our schools are in a state of disrepair as a result of a history of poor maintenance. The WCED will spend R623 million over the next three years addressing the maintenance of schools but we would like schools to use the 6% allocated in the norms and standards for routine maintenance and fee-paying schools should also consider this as central to enhancing the learning environment. It is a value that must be inculcated in all children: caring for our environment and our facilities.

In other words the budget and its emphases are strong instruments for ensuring that the core business of a school and the values it holds dear are strengthened.

Finally, let me end with a few more questions that SGBs should ask their schools.

What is the content of the school magazine? Does it reflect the balance between the academic and the extra-curricular? What do teachers talk about in the staff room and in the assemblies? What is celebrated at the end of the year and in the awards ceremonies? Is the message that it is more important to be in the first soccer team than pass mathematics? What does the SGB ask the principal to report on? If we ask about a current issues: Have all SGBs received reports on the June results of each class and grade in the school? What is the pass rate for each grade? What is the school doing in the next three months before the end of the year to support improved academic performance? Do schools and principals take seriously the results of every learner and grade in the school? In addition, the 31st July 2012 was the final date for high schools to order free Grade 11 textbooks. Did your school get the order in by yesterday?

So it seems to me that what it's all about is about getting the balance right: ensuring that all learners enrolled are provided with the opportunity to learn the specialist knowledge required for further learning; that every learner is provided as many other opportunities as possible to grow in understanding and aptitude.


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