On basic education, enabling rights, the state and the private sector

I came in for a friendly drumming from Daily Maverick columnist Paul Berkowitz over my views on low-fee private schools. I promised him, and I’ve done so here, that I would expand on them to start off a collegial exchange of ideas.

Tell me, if freedom is defined as the ability to choose one’s life path, are we all born free? I do not believe so. The material circumstance and social class you are born into largely determine the level of autonomy—or access or equality—you will have. That freedom, or lack there of, present from birth, will probably determine how your life pans out.

A kid born to a family in Delft, for example, and another born to a family in Clifton face different, fairly predictable lives. Averaging the pair’s life expectancies at birth might bring you to the national average of around 60*, but one, the latter, can expect to live as much as 20 years longer, meaning the former will probably have a very short life. Over their lifetimes, even if equalised, one, the Clifton kid, will far out-earn the Delft kid. This is true despite their being apparently equal before the law and even if they possessed equal cognitive abilities.

I make this fairly obvious point to return the one I made earlier about basic education and how it should be primarily be provided by the state and that private investment in basic education should mostly go toward improving government’s ability to deliver quality, no-fee education. I’m saying a lot there, so let me unpack it.

Education and the state

Under our Constitution, the right to basic education—like the right to housing and healthcare—is a basic human right or a “natural right”. It is granted to the individual owing to their being human. As a result, the state is obliged to provide access to basic education for all lawful residents of the country. I’ll leave it to the legal eagles to unravel whether this provision is subject to progressive realisation—in other words, subject to the availability of resources—as the education minister looks set to argue in her upcoming court case.

But what I will say is this constitutional provision, without being prescriptive, places the state at the centre of providing access to basic education. Rightly so, I believe. Left to the mechanisms of market forces, where access is determined by the resources you have available as tender, those like the Delft kid would either be left out entirely or be required to put forward a disproportionate amount of what little resources they have for access to what we have defined as a right stemming from being human.

Presumably how the state fulfils its role is discretionary. So it might want to do the whole shebang, as it does currently, or it might want to parse out chunks of it through public-private partnerships, for example. The Constitution, of course, also recognises the right of anyone to start a private school and provide a competing offering. However, owing to the private sector’s own constraints and need for profitability, it can never provide the kind of universal access to basic education envisaged in the Constitution. So it falls on the state to ensure that all have access.

Private sector in education

By far and away education has become the number one social cause into which the private sector in this country directs its resources. My friends at Greater Good joke, darkly, that maths and science is the new HIV/Aids. The updated information should come out soon, but Trialogue Publishing’s 2011 research indicated that nearly 40% of corporate social responsibility budgets went toward education programmes. On the face of it, this might rebuff my earlier claim about market forces. But what, exactly, drives corporate investment in education?

The cynic in me wants to say that many of them are still stuck in the mentality that it’s all a marketing exercise. Indeed there is some of that. Attendees at the Making CSI Matter conference earlier this year were beside themselves explaining how unacceptable it was that the event and publicity to hand over a cheque to a social or environmental sector organisation might cost more than the cheque being handed over.

The really smart corporations, however, have identified that the poor performance of South Africa’s basic education system poses a direct risk to their operations and profitability. They’ve realised that they would be playing fast and loose with the money of their long-term investors if they did not seriously apply their minds and perhaps direct their resources toward managing that risk. Corporations like these, however, are the exception. Most fall somewhere in between, where they recognise that the failed education system is a social problem, vaguely discern that it poses a direct risk and—driven by the socioeconomic pillars of broad-based black economic empowerment legislation and new, mandated thinking around sustainability—direct a portion of their sustainability resources to education programmes.

But the ones that do get it, like Old Mutual, have begun to think beyond funding maths and science programmes and are now investing in low-fee private schools. This is great, because they can let their marketing guys go to town with the feel-good buzz of “you can trust us because we will built a high-end school for the poor” while at the same time showing their shareholders a quantifiable cash-money return on the investment—something they could never do before with funding an education programme, for example.

The problem remains, though, that despite the legislative and regulatory framework and principles driving this good corporate citizenship, this approach remains one of claiming victory by leaping over the lower hurdle. Surely, if they’ve conceptualised it correctly, in the spirit of good corporate citizenship, Old Mutual should look to get involved in reforming the public education system? This might mean anything, from lobbying for the education department to parcel off the parts of the system it is unable to implement—like school infrastructure—to supporting causes like Equal Education’s school infrastructure initiatives. Sure, both of these pose reputational and other risks, which, too, must be managed. But my point is that this is not where the current thinking is. Corporate investment in education has, thus far, gone toward treating the symptoms of a failed education system, not addressing the causes.

Of course low-fee private schools are a fantastic intervention, but they are not the panacea they are often romanticised to be.

Free education vs low-fee private education

Now earlier on I said that material circumstance and social class largely determine how one’s life turns out. That’s not entirely true. Natural rights are designated as such because they enable the individual to fully enjoy all human rights and can, if need be, liberate the individual from the circumstances of their birth.

So, sure, the right to basic education does not automatically mean it should be free, but given how it cannot be separated from freedom and equality and all the other values we should value for ourselves and others, it seems to me questionable to require payment in exchange, especially when for some, like the Clifton kid, realising these rights is a given and for others it is not.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise says its research indicates that parents will hold teachers accountable if they’re footing the bill for school feels. Perhaps. But that’s the wrong starting point, I’m afraid. You’ll find that in South Africa, teachers’ lack of accountability stems primarily from poor performance management systems in the public sector, not disinterest on the part of parents. Teachers, though, will rightly refuse attempts at implementing a performance management system unless it weights their performance with the resources at their disposal. Either that or they will refuse until they are provided with equal resources—libraries, computer and science labs, heck, even having a classroom is no certainty. Which begs the question: why don’t all teachers have equal, or at least the most basic, resources at their disposal? And that right there, the R86.6-billion question, is a good start. 


* A rough but not inaccurate calculation based on 2010 estimates from the Actuarial Society of South Africa. I assumed Delft kid to be black and Clifton kid to be white, and both to be male. Average life expectancies have fallen since and ASSA’s estimates appear to be at least 10 years higher than most. However, I did not have the current or other numbers by race, which I’ve used as the closest approximation of socioeconomic circumstances.

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