Thought piece: The X factor of schooling

Those that can, do.  Those that can’t, find a way and then teach.

It is generally held that for any education system to function effectively, a combination of good overarching policies and state action from above, and diligence, determination and self-initiated action from those on the ground, is required in almost equal measure. Yet this is not always the case. How do we account for those successes that occur without any government assistance?

The truth is there is no perfect formula for getting education right. As empty as this sounds, this truth itself is valuable, as it takes the power out of the hands of a few and puts it into the hands of many. If we are to overcome the idea that improving South Africa’s educational outcomes is achievable only through government intervention, a whole realm of possibility opens up. The less we allow ourselves to fall back on the blaming discourse (and believe it), the more we will be inclined to make a difference ourselves. Indeed, what is required of civil society is a shift in mindset for those possibilities to become visible.

To understand the factors that determine success and how to leverage them, it is worth examining  cases where outstanding  success has been achieved in the public education system without government intervention.

Take the example of Khensani Primary School in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria. A report on CNN documents how during the late 1990s Khensani was a derelict school  struggling to keep its doors open. Enter Fannie Sebolela – an ex-gardener turned doctor – who stepped in to take over its leadership. Sebolela has “transformed Khensani into a model institution that is one of the top performing schools in the country”. Because of the lack of government aid, Sebolela, in his determination, was not afraid to turn elsewhere, often finding support from as close as the local business community.

Another example is that of UJ Metropolitan Academy which was highlighted in the Saturday Star for its remarkable matric pass rate and student dedication. The school, also sustained by sponsors, attributes its success to the dedication of its 24 teachers and the resilience of its many poverty stricken pupils. An especially unique feature is that all learners have to take pure mathematics and science –  maths literacy is not an option. Last year the school attained a 100% matric pass rate.

While there may be no single formula for success, these two cases illustrate  a number of undeniable ‘X’ factors: dedication towards creating working sites of learning, initiative in sourcing funding, teachers who extend themselves beyond their designated roles, and generous community input and solidarity. These are not tangible assets that require huge sums of money. Rather, they are abstract human qualities that have coalesced among a group of people at the right time and place and built successful schools.

This is  much of what the Adopt-a-School Whole School Development model is about:: a process of finding what ‘X’ factors are missing or operating inefficiently and coming up with the best ways to facilitate and cultivate their growth; the final goal being that of inspiring an organic contagion of community involvement, self-proclaimed leadership and ownership of the school itself.

Ultimately, Adopt-a-School Foundation has come to recognise that effective education institutions are based on a purposeful and dynamic relationship between the teachers who are paid to be there, and the learners who are told they have to be there. Beyond all metrics of success, the best gauge of how much a school has been transformed is perhaps simply just how palpable the sense is that everyone now wants to be there.

Of course, it will always be impossible to get every component within a school system to function perfectly. Getting just one factor to perform better, however, seems to be a noble enough goal. Improvement in one area clearly has an inevitable positive knock-on effect in other areas. It is, in the end, about facilitating the flourishing of what is already there – the determination, vision, hope and desire of individuals.

These then are the factors that we can’t do without – neither from government nor from the private sector or civil society. It is good to know though that among all these players, if only one individual has the vision and determination, much can be accomplished. As the success of Adopt-a-School Foundation reveals to us time and time again, there is always that one individual. Our task is simple in its difficulty: finding them.

Michael Edmeston
AAS guest writer