South Africa has a long history of oppression and apartheid which have led to great inequalities, despite South Africa's classification as an upper-middle income country (World Bank, 2008). 26 years after the fall of apartheid, the systematic racial segregation practiced under apartheid, in conjunction with an overtly white supremacist ideology still has a profound impact on South Africa's society as well as its education system (Spaull, 2012). Howie (2012) explains how South Africa struggles with a widening performance gap between rich and poor students and high levels of drop out, particularly among black Africans. Spaull's (2012) analysis of SACMEQ III data shows that students in the 25% wealthiest schools are far more likely to have their own textbook, receive homework frequently and experience less teacher absenteeism compared to the poorest 75% of schools. The distribution of resources and capital still privileges white South Africans, according to Nattrass and Seekings (2001) and Spaull (2012) and essentially divides the country and the education system into two nations.
Several authors point to problematic accountability relationships and a lack of trust and capacity in the South African education system as key issues in the lack of improvement of learning outcomes. Spaull (2001) for example explains how the national, provincial and local levels of government are not held accountable for their use of public resources, and how there are few (if any) tangible consequences for non-performance or to address the high rates of teacher absenteeism and low rates of curriculum coverage. Eddy Spicer, Ehren et al's (2016) systematic review also points to lack of teacher accountability in South Africa as school-based registers of teachers' attendance are not checked and national government fails to sanction teachers who are often absent.
Lack of trust inhibits the implementation of effective assessment and inspection systems as teacher unions, for example, reject inspections of teachers and block the publication of assessment data, while lack of capacity subsequently prevents district managers, area managers, principals, heads of department and teachers to effectively use the data that is available (see Eddy Spicer, Ehren et al, 2016; Howie, 2012). This 'vicious' cycle of distrust, lack of accountability and lack of capacity renders the system powerless to improve and creates a series of 'binding constraints' (e.g. weak institutional functionality, undue union influence) that need to be addressed in order to improve learning outcomes, according to Van der Berg et al (2016).
These examples highlight the need to understand the intricate relations between accountability, capacity and trust and how these relations produce (or fail to produce) a pattern of change in learning outcomes over time and create a divided unequal system. We aim to study these relations in South Africa's public primary education system in three phases: 1) Social network analysis of the (accountability and trust) relations and flow of resources in a low and high performing school in quintile 1 and 5 (20% of schools in most deprived and wealthy areas), 2) A focus group in which we will map the causal loops which describe how trust, capacity and accountability interconnect through a series of balancing and/or reinforcing feedback loops and how these loops have (in the past) produced (or failed to produce) a pattern of change in learning outcomes and have created large inequity in the system, and 3) Collecting quantitative (assessment and questionnaire data) to test the causal loops via longitudinal path models and multiple-indicator multiple-cause (MIMIC) models.
Our impact strategy is set to promote more positive and effective accountability relationships in South Africa's public primary education system with the goal of improving learning outcomes of disadvantaged children and close achievement gaps. Our study will highlight where relationships need to be improved mostly and in what way to improve learning outcomes, but initial scoping of the South African landscape and conversations with key stakeholders suggest that an overall lack of trust in the system, and particularly between national authorities (Department for Basic Education), teacher unions, principals, and teachers are key to improving relationships.
These stakeholders are the main beneficiaries of our work, specifically:
- Department of Basic Education
- SACE (South Africa Council for Educators, responsible for registering educators, CPD and code of professional ethics)
- National Association of School Governing Bodies
- Provincial Education Department
- District-level authority/circuit manager
- Support services (e.g. MIET Africa, SAPESI)
- Developers of annual assessments (grade 3 and 6), and international assessments (TIMSS, SACMEQ, PIRLS)
- District Officials and Subject Advisors, NEEDU
- Teacher unions (South African Democratic Teachers Union, Sadtu; National Teachers Union, Natu; National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa, Naptosa; the Professional Educators Union, PEU; SA Onderwys Unie, SAOU).
By the end of this project we aim to have supported these key stakeholders in:
- Building the capacity (financial and material resources, knowledge and skills) and trust to implement well-functioning assessment and inspection systems, and
- Developing effective ways to share and use data and feedback from national and international assessments and school inspections
With the purpose of improving learning outcomes of disadvantaged students.
Our research activities are set up in a manner that allows us to build constructive and collaborative relationships with key stakeholders, where building trust and buy-in is a key strategy from the start of the project.
Our impact strategy includes three strategies:
1) Trust building and stakeholder engagement (through involvement of key stakeholders in research activities, working with an advisory board and our co-investigator JET Education Services). Our pathways of impact start with building relationships though our one-on-one interviews with all these stakeholders at the start of the project, and their involvement as participants on a stakeholder group throughout the project.
2) Knowledge transfer and mobilization (academic papers, written briefings and press releases, video clips, published on YouTube, OpenLearn, plugged through personal and institutional twitter accounts and our project website, and linked to BBC iPlayer, JET bulletins and learning briefs and UNESCO/UNEVOC network),
3) Capability and capacity-building (seminar, workshops incorporated in existing teaching activities, and informing initial teacher training and development of teaching standards).
We have already received letters of support for our project from the main accountability body, the South African Council of Educators (SACE), and one of the main teacher unions, SADTU.