No longer business as usual: The role of the private sector to improve schooling in South Africa

This article is based on a Report  titled “No Longer Business as Usual: Private sector efforts to improve schooling in South Africa,” funded by Absa Group Citizenship, and prepared by the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

Click here to download the Report , or visit www.cde.org.za

The COVID-19 pandemic affected education systems around the globe with the near-total closure of schools, universities and colleges; exposing the huge inequalities between disadvantaged and privileged pupils as learning moved online.

South Africa was no exception. In a Report titled “Are we asking the right questions about re-opening schools?” published in May 2020 – the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) noted that school closures and other challenges created by the pandemic were disastrous for the majority of learners in our country.

The 2020s: At risk of becoming a lost decade

Since then, evidence supporting the findings of this Report has only strengthened.[1] The Report stressed that we had to get all learners learning again to avoid accumulated losses to educational outcomes, employability, lifetime earnings, human capital, and the economy as a whole.

In a paper prepared for the NIDS-CRAM Insight Briefs series, Martin Gustafsson from the Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch and Carol Nuga Deliwe from the Department of Basic Education argued that we are only beginning to understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational quality, and education more broadly.

“Depending on how successful the efforts of the schooling system and individual teachers are in catching up lost learning, below-expected Grade 12 outcomes lasting to at least 2022, and possibly as far as 2031, could be experienced,” Gustafsson and Deliwe argue. They believe this will compromise progress in the post-school education sector, as well as productivity in the labour market in the long run.

Calls for a strategic approach

Based on extensive interviews and a workshop held earlier in 2020, CDE has written a Report  titled “No Longer Business as Usual: Private sector efforts to improve schooling in South Africa” which investigates the role and recent contributions of non-state actors in improving the country’s learning outcomes.

The main aim of this Report is to assess the role that corporations, private foundations, and privately funded education projects and partnerships could play in ensuring that South Africa’s basic education system performs at significantly improved levels.

“Depending on how successful the efforts of the schooling system and individual teachers are in catching up lost learning, below-expected Grade 12 outcomes lasting to at least 2022, and possibly as far as 2031, could be experienced.”

Substantial room for improvement

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the South African schooling system required substantial qualitative improvement and innovation. Since 2008, CDE has advocated for business to start playing a more strategic role in improving the quality of learning in the South African schooling system.

Business has a large, direct stake in achieving this goal. Improving learning can spur inclusive growth by producing a more skilled and productive workforce; by improving the amount of innovation within the economy, leading to new ideas, knowledge, products, and processes; and by facilitating the transmission of knowledge needed to effectively implement technologies.[2]

To learn more about business’s role in improving the learning outcomes that the basic education system delivers across the board, CDE interviewed local and international education experts, government education officials, and leaders of some of the largest privately funded education initiatives. They also conducted a virtual workshop with these programme heads and other education experts in April 2020.

Despite fairly rapid improvements since 2002, the majority of South African learners are failing to learn the basics, i.e. literacy and numeracy. South Africa’s education system is uniquely inefficient: we have the GDP per capita of Colombia or Thailand, and we spend enormous sums on basic education, but we get the learning outcomes of Lesotho or Nepal, countries with a GDP per capita around a quarter of ours.

In this context, how could the private sector assist to improve learning in South Africa’s public schools?

South Africa’s education system is uniquely inefficient: we have the GDP per capita of Colombia or Thailand, and we spend enormous sums on basic education, but we get the learning outcomes of Lesotho or Nepal, countries with a GDP per capita around a quarter of ours.

Conversations with private sector leaders and experts

Leaders of private education initiatives agreed that the role of business is not to replace the state, but to support it. And while they also agreed on the methods that business can employ, there was some divergence in opinion on what business’s focus and priority should be.

Education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe argued that one area that requires significant intervention is the dysfunctional nature of the education bureaucracy and the poor levels of leadership, accountability, and management in the system. Some private sector-driven projects are working to improve the way that district officials, principals, and heads of department operate and interact with one another. In so doing, they point to an important area of reform, thereby making it more likely that teachers will be both enabled and motivated to teach in ways that are more effective.

Dr Louise van Rhyn, CEO of leadership and education non-profit, Symphonia for South Africa and founder of its flagship programme Partners for Possibility (PfP), believes that improving the leadership skills of principals is another important intervention with potential.

CDE furthermore recommends that privately funded programmes should serve as the research and development arm of the system. Data from these research and development projects must be released for public scrutiny, and there must be transparency and honesty about what has worked and what has not to avoid scarce resources being wasted by duplicating efforts across the system.

Such programmes can undertake experiments with the potential to bring about real improvements, although these must be designed carefully and cost-effectively, with a vision of being scaled across the education system.

Key to success is the issue of scalability. Cathy Duff, Director at Trialogue, highlighted that while we are seeing an impact on learner outcomes from private sector programmes, the impact is not seen at scale. Aside from a few notable examples, Duff has not seen “much evidence of thinking about systemic change in the private sector”. The danger is spending money on individual projects, without thinking about impacting the broader system – a problem that has plagued business-funded initiatives for decades.

Leaders of private education initiatives agreed that the role of business is not to replace the state, but to support it.

No longer business as usual

The crucial issue is how the private sector both supports and influences what the state does. In this context, accountability emerges as a crucial issue. The goal must be to highlight deficiencies and demonstrate ways to enhance both capacity and accountability within the sector. The private sector must use its position to place pressure on the state to undertake crucial reforms, especially those relating to enhanced accountability mechanisms and practices.

The Report concludes that large corporations must unite with other non-government actors, including academics, the media, civil society organisations and non-profit organisations, school governing boards, and communities and parents around the country to push for education reform.

Business should have consistent and strategic messaging on these reforms; explaining what is needed and why; what each reform is intended to achieve; and what the ultimate vision for the system is. CDE believes this is the best way that business can contribute to improving the outcomes of the basic education system as a whole.

The additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have made this strategic shift all the more urgent.

This Report has been made possible with funding from Absa. The funders do not necessarily agree with the views expressed.


[1] See Nic Spaull, ‘National lockdowns and national school closures are not the answer’, Financial Mail, 21 July 2020; and Nic Spaull, ‘Six reasons why schools must be open if we are to fight COVID-19’, Daily Maverick, 22 July 2020.

[2] Montfort Mlachila and Tlhalefang Moeletsi, Struggling to Make the Grade: A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Weak Outcomes of South Africa’s Education System, International Monetary Fund Working Paper 19/47, June 2019, p. 39.