OPINION | SOUTH AFRICA 

School funding: South Africa can learn from the world

Some countries have managed to improve outcomes for their most disadvantaged learners

A photo of a girl walking to school
Photo: Equal Education
By , and    

In previous articles we have suggested that South Africa’s school funding model is  perpetuating rather than redressing an unequal education system. We showed that poorer and more rural provinces allocate less funds per learner than richer and more urban provinces. We demonstrated how more qualified teachers with higher salaries are predominantly found in schools in better-off areas, further leading provinces to spend more per child on personnel costs at these schools. We looked at the  question of fees and asked why we remain among only a handful of countries globally that permit the charging of fees in (some) public schools.

Inequalities in how schools are funded contribute to skewed learning outcomes which are inconsistent with our Constitution. South Africa has one of the biggest gaps in learning achievements between rich and poor learners in Africa as well as globally. Narrowing this gap will require making spending more progressive (more funds to poorer schools than richer ones) and better-targeted to the actual needs of our learners, parents, teachers and communities.

What can we learn from the models that other countries have adopted to fund their public schools? Are there examples of countries which have managed to improve the learning outcomes of their most disadvantaged learners?

Equitable school funding raises at least four broad questions:

  • Are sufficient resources allocated to guarantee education of an adequate quality to all learners?

  • Are resources allocated in relation to the actual education needs of learners?

  • Are funds distributed in a way which allows all students to reach certain prescribed standards of education irrespective of their race, class, sex, area of residence, family wealth or other status?

  • Are funds redressing historical inequalities in access to quality education and improving the learning outcomes of all students, but particularly the most disadvantaged?

Are sufficient resources allocated to guarantee quality education for all?

The Campaign for the Right to Education is a national network of school communities, trade unions, NGOs, universities and committed citizens in Brazil. The Campaign has developed a methodology for organising the education budget which was adopted by the Brazilian government in 2014.

Prior to this, Brazil had a similar education funding model to South Africa, which was based on a top-down approach where the education budget is based on the total revenue available to the state and the number of enrolled students. The new strategy uses as its starting point the costs per student required to ensure a minimum standard of quality education. The so-called ‘Cost of Initial Quality Education per Student’ (Custo-Aluno Qualidade Inicial, CAQi) is calculated based on the cost of education inputs; the salaries of school professionals; and the cost of providing school meals, resources for the effective supervision of schools, and other essential goods and services. These costs are adjusted to cater for the extra resources required for teaching students with special needs; students in rural areas; and students in areas with a low human development index, which are considered a priority by the government.

Although not yet fully implemented, the approach has been widely applauded as a successful exercise in building consensus between civil society and government on the minimum standards and inputs required for the provision of a quality, transformative public education system.

South Africa’s education budgets are mostly informed by the number of learners in each province and the relative wealth of a school’s surrounding community. Since the end of apartheid, no broader costing exercises have been conducted to estimate how much the provision of a minimum package of education inputs and outputs would cost for primary and secondary schools. How much would it cost – and what changes to the funding model would be required – to get all learners back on track with their grade specific learning targets, for example?

Are resources allocated in relation to the actual education needs of learners?

Chile is one of the world’s most rapidly improving nations with regard to quality in basic education. The targeting of resources to disadvantaged students and the emphasis on cost-effectiveness has been identified as one of the key factors for its success in improving education quality. Interventions such as improvement programmes for poorly performing schools and voucher systems (which provide additional funding of up to 70% to schools with high concentrations of low-income students) were found to be particularly effective at narrowing the education gap.

Many other countries have included needs-based criteria in their funding formulas as a way to make the allocation of learning resources more responsive to education needs.

As a result of sustained campaigning and litigation, the majority of states in the US now apply needs-based criteria in their funding formulas. These criteria are either student specific (such as family income, English proficiency and special needs) or area specific (such as the relative wealth of the school district). However, these needs-based assessments do not apply to the allocation of teachers, one of the most critical education inputs.

How do we get the best teachers to address the most urgent learning needs?

Teacher salaries can make up 80 to 90% of education budgets. Many countries such as the Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda have designed policies which use financial and non-financial incentives to get well qualified and experienced teachers to work in difficult and under-performing areas. Outcomes from these countries show that, in order to be effective, incentives had to be significant in scale; targeted to schools in remote areas; and tied to teachers remaining in the post. In Gambia, incentives were as high as 30 to 40% of teachers’ regular salary.

In South Korea, teachers working in disadvantaged schools benefit from additional stipends, smaller class sizes, less teaching time, the chance to choose their next school after teaching in a difficult area, and greater promotion opportunities.

The global Education for All movement led by UNESCO recommends recruiting and training teachers from within local communities which struggle to fill teacher vacancies. The thinking is that locally recruited teachers are more likely to remain in the community and are more aware about the communities’ social and cultural context, a factor which has shown to positively impact student learning.

A crucial step towards making education funding in South Africa more equitable would be to increase the redress component in the allocation of teacher posts. This would help schools in low-income areas to attract and pay for more qualified and experienced teachers and principals.

Ensuring that school funding is linked to improved learning outcomes – What matters most?

Comparative research on the most cost-effective education interventions is very cautious about drawing general conclusions due to the many factors which influence outcomes. There is however broad agreement that the following make a difference:

  • Investment in the early stages of education such as pre-primary and primary education pay off in the long run as good literacy and numeracy are preconditions for further learning;
  • Strengthening teachers’ capacities for effective instruction in the classroom (including special training to identify and assist students who are lagging behind learning targets);
  • Avoiding grade repetition of students through early identification of learning gaps and remedial classes.

Brazil has managed to increase literacy and numeracy levels significantly since 2003. This achievement has been put down in part to increasing accountability for learning outcomes through the introduction of the Basic Education Development Index. This index is based on an evaluation system which tracks performance of private and public schools on student grade progression, repetition and promotion in grades 4, 8 and 11. A school’s development is measured against progression towards its own targets as well as a national target. Crucially, parents and communities are made aware of the results of the index and therefore use it to increase public pressure to improve school performance.

The index has also highlighted the link between diversion of school funds and poor learner achievements. Prior to the introduction of the index, up to 15% of funds allocated to schools were diverted through widespread corrupt practices, such as the use of fake receipts, over-invoicing of goods and services and payments made to contractors without service provision.

More data, more accountability = greater efficiency

Currently, there is no data on school budget allocations and expenditure which is publicly available in South Africa. Yet the misuse of education budgets is a serious problem.

Transparency International recommends that “national, district and school and university budgets need to be published in detail” to allow for public monitoring of how resources are allocated and spent. Access to this public information would allow for state or community-led interventions such as school expenditure tracking and targeted audits.

In Kenya, all schools are required to publicly display the sources and uses of the funds they receive, including funding from parents. This has allowed school governing bodies and parent-teacher associations to track expenditures and hold school management accountable. Why aren’t our communities afforded the same opportunity?

Public access to reliable, relevant and timely data is essential for making public systems more efficient. Examples of this can be found within South Africa. The District Health Barometer, for instance, demonstrates how access to information can lead to more analysis of expenditure and improved service delivery.

Conclusion – investing in education pays off

An international assessment of reading skills in South Africa conducted in 2011 showed that 58% of Grade 4 learners were not able to understand what they read and that 29% were completely illiterate. Letting those learners continue to lag behind or drop out is a violation of their constitutional right to basic education. If lost contributions to the labour market, lost tax money and increased social transfers are factored in, leaving these learners behind will create many more burdens than society can manage. Research has shown that each additional year of education attained by learners is associated with 18% to 35% higher GDP per capita in later life. Can the benefits of investing in those learners and ensuring more equal access to quality education now be doubted?

See also:

Weyss is a researcher on school funding at the Equal Education Law Centre and an Honorary Research Associate at the UCT Children’s Institute. Ally is the Executive Director of the Equal Education Law Centre. McLaren is a Senior Researcher at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute. 

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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