What if you cannot fix a school? If that school is so dysfunctional that one after another intervention has failed to “turn around” pupils’ performance?
If the unionised teachers remain defiant of any attempts from the department of education – the employer – to get them to show up and teach every day with passion and commitment to the children?
If the parents have long given up on the school and leave their children stuck there simply because they have no other options?
If the culture of the school is so decrepit that there are no signs of social, cultural, sporting or academic life on the premises, only slow-moving teachers who do not want to be there and uninspired children who have spent most of the school day waiting for something to happen?
As an incurable optimist with an emphatically affirmative response to George Count’s famous question, “Can schools change the social order?” I have had to make peace with this simple fact – sometimes a school falls into such levels of organisational meltdown that trying to change that school, under existing arrangements, is a waste of time, resources and energy.
Every now and again my schools turnaround team had to walk away from a school because the politics and bureaucracy that entraps educational work made it impossible to secure change, despite the availability of resources and expertise.
Under such circumstances a new model of the school is needed, for with each passing year another generation of mostly poor, black South African youth are cast aside so that the rest of their lives is marked by educational failure and chronic unemployment.
Which is why I am intrigued by a new model of schooling proposed by the department of education in the Western Cape.
It is called “collaboration schools” and is modelled on the very successful “academy schools” in the United Kingdom.
It is, in essence, a public-private partnership in which government retains overall responsibility for the school but its operations are conducted by a range of partners including private sector companies, donors, non-governmental organisations alongside, of course, parents and teachers.
In this model schools obtain vital resources for their transformation; they gain access to professional assistance to assist teachers and principals; and they benefit from a genuine partnership of internal and external skills to change the organisation.
The school remains a public school, of course, and government does not give up its responsibility. But now some critical things change – the school is held accountable for results (read, pupil attainment) and teachers are selected on the basis of competence and commitment, nothing else.
Now, public education is in my DNA. Both my children attended public schools by parental choice and I love the idea of democratic education in the public space. But I would be irresponsible not to recognise that when your so-called government schools fail children day after day in this vast country, you consider other models alongside the traditional public school.
And this is a model that can work for one principal reason – the choice of teachers is no longer based on jobs-for-cash, union loyalties, tribal affinity or simple political connections.
For this reason alone, expect resistance from the teacher unions.
It’s the people, stupid! This of course, is a play on the very effective phrase Bill Clinton’s campaign used when he ran for American president – “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But schools, like any organisation, stand or fall by the professionalism, competence and dedication of the people who do the work.
In this context, those people are the teachers and principals.
It is not primarily the textbooks or the buildings or the funds available in the budget – important as these elements are in the operations of a school; more than anything else, however, is that highly competent teachers matter when it comes to learning gains for individual children.
What the collaboration schools do, in effect, is place that vital resource, the teacher, beyond the reach of unscrupulous operators.
Put bluntly, change the teacher and you change the school.
What the private sector does better than the public of course, is to demand accountability for investments made and this is one of the strongest benefits of collaboration.
A competent and committed teacher has nothing to fear; what makes the unions jittery is that they know the nett effect of their rule over the poorest schools is to sustain a regime of non-accountability.
And that is why South Africans must support the collaboration schools initiative; it might be our one last chance to give our most neglected youth in the most dysfunctional schools a clear shot out of poverty.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State