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Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Picture: VELI NHLAPO

As SA navigates its way out of two years of disruptions caused by Covid-19, one of several areas it has to attend to is education. But this task cannot be left to the government alone.

The pandemic exposed the glaring divisions in public education: well-resourced public and private schools could offer online education while township schools and those in disadvantaged areas had to get by on rotational classes. That underscores the need to improve SA’s education system, and the private sector can play an important role.

Education gets considerable fiscal support from the public purse,  receiving 19.53% of the national budget allocation in 2020, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators. The Trialogue Business in Society Handbook put SA company spend for corporate social investment (CSI) at R10.7bn in the 2020 financial year.

For a public education system of almost 30,000 schools catering for 12-million pupils, including 1-million matriculants a year, it’s clear that more resources are required. But there are two important points to consider. First, the government and the private sector need to get more value for money. This might mean cutting out intermediaries for the supply of goods, and reducing leakage due to wastage and corruption.

Second, the government and communities have to play their part in protecting the investment made in education via community policing forums. The private sector won’t invest in essential schooling infrastructure if it risks being vandalised and having equipment stolen within months of being installed. Providing insurance or private security for these facilities will simply raise the cost of investing in education.

In 2019, the government published a 25-year review of progress in the basic education sector and found that challenges persisted despite the gains made. The biggest achievement in education during democracy has been the improvement of access to education by making grade R compulsory. This was bolstered by providing transport and feeding schemes to help children improve their concentration and stay in school longer.

The review also found that dropouts persisted throughout the education system. These numbers have increased due to the pandemic. Another challenge is the loss of older, experienced teachers. This was countered by introducing measures such as the Fundza Lushaka bursary which has drawn younger teachers into the system and relieved the pressure on existing ones.

Finally, the review found that resources were unevenly distributed nationally. Poorer provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape received a lower allocation for schooling infrastructure and textbooks while Gauteng, which faces pressures such as inward migration, received more support from government and through CSI initiatives.

Investment in education by the private sector must cover the full value chain — from early childhood development to work readiness. So this year we must start investing in children who will study to adapt to the rapid changes necessitated by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and prepare them to enter the workplace in 2040. The private sector can invest at every stage of their development.

As the government prepares to migrate early childhood development learning centres from the department of social development to the department of basic education, the private sector can invest in helping these centres acquire higher standards. This includes providing learning materials, catering, hygiene facilities and training the centre owners to become entrepreneurs and teachers.

This will prepare pupils to enter the primary school phase. Here, the private sector must invest in helping to develop a learner’s numeracy and literacy skills to ensure they will excel later in benchmarks such as the Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study to align with, or exceed, other developing countries.

The private sector has already invested in making the syllabus accessible through printing foundation-phase learning materials and making it digitally available through open source with telecom companies ensuring that access to it does not require data.

The next critical area of investment is schooling infrastructure. It starts with classrooms and ablution facilities and incorporates libraries (now called media centres) and science laboratories. This is where private sector efforts have suffered the greatest setback through theft, vandalism and a lack of maintenance.

As pupils progress to secondary schooling, emphasis has been placed on science, technology, engineering & mathematics (Stem) subjects. This is another area where private sector investment is needed. It can do this by collaborating with technical schools to help them acquire updated equipment for teaching engineering, maths and related subjects and to introduce new subjects such as robotics.

An equally important area of investment is teacher development, not just for Stem subject teachers, but for languages and disciplines such as social sciences and humanities. Learners benefit from being taught by confident teachers, and the private sector can help by offering teachers to the latest trends in their areas of expertise.

Once pupils complete secondary education they must navigate the challenges of tertiary education. The private sector does offer bursaries, but it can go further by offering psycho-sociological support to improve students’ chances of completing their degrees. One company spent time examining a learner’s environment and found he had poor eyesight, which went undiagnosed throughout his high school years. They then provided prescription glasses for him.

The last leg of the journey is to equip youngsters with work-readiness skills as they prepare to enter the workplace. This is essential for young people who experienced a gap between completing their studies and starting new employment. Pupils can be equipped with essential skills such as business communications, life skills and professional conduct in the workplace.

One company pays its graduate trainees their first month’s salary upfront to help with transport and related expenses as they enter the world of work. It’s a small but important gesture as young people prepare to face new life challenges.

• Michael is founder and CEO of education material printer Lebone Litho Printers.

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