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Public-private partnership can level education playing field

By LOUISE SCHOONWINKEL, MD of Optimi Home

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It’s no secret that South Africa’s education system suffers from inequality and inefficiency. However, in such a young democracy, a certain degree of stumbling is to be expected. Unfortunately, even as we address past-era issues, the gap between privileged private-school education and that provided in peri-urban and rural areas is becoming undeniable and ever-widening, in no small part as a result of the complex Covid-19 environment.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of education. The pandemic has spurred innovation in the sector and, even with government plans to cut learning expenditure in the next few years, there’s still a chance for all South African learners to access quality education in conducive environments. But we can’t do it alone. Only through meaningful collaborations between public and private enterprises can we truly transform the industry and give our children the education they deserve. Here’s how to start.

Create innovative solutions to financing

Funding will always be an issue in education. Despite relatively low government education costs, many families still struggle to afford school supplies, textbooks, and more. And private school fees seem to be climbing every year. In a research article published by local non-profit organisation JET Education Services and The Commonwealth, participants suggest establishing specialised finance units at a sectoral level, including early childhood development, basic education, and post-school education and training units. According to the paper, such education-focused finance units could build internal capacity and encourage a collaborative network of partners in the public and private sectors to help institutionalise learning and guide future developments.

One option includes the creation of performance-based funding options, where finances could be linked to the achievements of learning outcomes and performance targets, assisting governments in identifying high-performing programmes that should have more funding allocated to them. An example of this kind of initiative is the Impact Bond Innovation Fund, which was set up as an outcome-based financing mechanism to improve ECD outcomes in the Western Cape. It’s the first of its kind and was launched in 2018. So far, private investors have promised to invest $540 000 (about R8 million) upfront to fund the programme over three years. This kind of public-private partnership will be crucial in building sustainable education systems of the future and points to the need for private entities to complement, rather than criticise, current government practices.

Embrace digital opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic saw major disruptions in the education industry, speeding up the use of online learning, digital textbooks, learning apps, and more. However, it soon became evident that many schools were not prepared for this kind of innovation, and only top-tier institutions could adapt with adequate technology and infrastructure. Less privileged learners were at a disadvantage, once again.

However, the Department of Basic Education took steps to make learning resources available to a wider audience. They implemented education channels on SABC, eTV, and DSTV, as well as mainstream and community radio stations. In partnership with various private telecoms companies, we saw Vodacom’s free Digital Classroom and Telkom’s zero-rated e-learning platform Lightbulb Education. For education officials and teachers, government introduced tools such as the Data-Driven Districts Dashboard, where all education-related information – from exam papers and curriculum details to matric results – can be accessed on one digital platform.

Optimi workplace provides learners with free lessons in mathematics and science through its local online learning platform Tuta-Me. With the help of corporate sponsorships from the likes of Investec, Deloitte, Shell, and Seriti, the programme offers online learning material, tutoring sessions, and support to 6 000 South African learners from schools in rural areas on an interactive digital platform. The project led to 90% of the programme’s matric students achieving a bachelor’s degree pass in their final exams last year. This example highlights the importance of innovative solutions and collaborative partnerships in boosting education in South Africa.

An equally inspiring international project is Canadian e-learning platform Rumie. Operating as a non-profit e-learning organisation, it provides free online content and access to education volunteers. They also work with connectivity providers to assist learners wherever they are. Their aim is to remove unfair barriers to learning by using technology to freely share expert knowledge with those who need it the most. This is the kind of innovation private and public South African enterprises should be focusing on.

It’s clear that we have the capacity to adapt to change and provide solutions when we need to. The key now will be to keep projects growing and innovate further when new circumstances or changes in education arise.

Prioritise connectivity

One thing links all of the above innovations together, and that’s the critical need for access to quality connectivity – at reasonable prices. Despite reports that 63% of South Africans have access to the internet in some way, only 9.1% of the population claim to have a connection at home. Residents in Gauteng and the Western Cape are better off, but in Limpopo, just 1.6% of people can access the Internet at home. If we’re going to make the most of digital opportunities and technological innovations, this needs to change.

Researchers who took part in the JET Education Services research mentioned above called on government to establish immediate agreements with telecoms companies to increase access to connectivity, reduce high data costs and, therefore, make educational materials more accessible and more affordable for local families. Suggestions include more zero-rated education sites and further collaborations between public departments and private ICT companies.

Through meaningful partnerships and considered collaborations, anything is possible – even in the wake of a global pandemic. There’s hope yet for the South African education system, and the many children who dream of contributing to our dynamic country and economy.

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