Spending on school infrastructure does matter

Eastern Cape mud school. Photo courtesy of Equal Education.

Rosalind Gater and Doron Isaacs

25 May 2012

It is wrong to say that school funding is not crucial to learner outcomes, argue Rosalind Gater and Doron Isaacs of Equal Education.

It is difficult to dispute the severity of the education crisis facing South Africa. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training, approximately 2.8 million 18 to 24 year olds are not employed, not in an educational institution and not in training. 2011 Annual National Assessment results show that the majority of learners at Grade 3 and Grade 6 are neither numerate, nor literate. And according to the Minister of Basic Education, the infrastructure backlog currently stands at a staggering R66 billion.

Encouragingly, public consensus is beginning to recognise that the education system cannot continue to proceed as normal. However, misconceptions abound about which inputs are most likely to positively impact school performance, a discussion closely linked to school funding. At one end of the continuum are those who peddle the myth that children learn perfectly well ‘sitting under a tree’; while at the other are those who believe that resources alone are a cure-all.

Thankfully, there is a middle ground. While it is unlikely that funding alone can transform a system plagued by diverse challenges, it is, at the same time, inaccurate and dangerous to assert that school funding does not play a crucial role in learner outcomes. Moreover, it is crucial that the discussion about funding is supported by factual content and a broad understanding of the whole picture. This will prevent the discussion from being reduced to one characterised by myopic ideology.

School funding is not pro-poor

The prevailing belief that school funding is pro-poor obscures the reality. In terms of national policy, only non-personnel funding, which is used to buy resources such as books, toilet paper and stationary, prioritises the needs of the poorest learners. In this category alone, it is true, as Mandy de Waal wrote recently, that six times more is spent on the poorest fifth than on the wealthiest fifth. However, non-personnel funding represents less than 20% of the overall education budget.

By contrast, personnel spending, (ie-staff salaries), represents 80% of the budget and is allocated in terms of a formula of simple equality, rather than on the basis of pro-poor substantive equality. Public schools are allocated public teaching posts according to a range of factors, the most important being the number of learners in the school. Therefore a well-endowed former model-C school will receive a proportionally equal number of teachers to a poor township or rural school. When attempting to fill these posts, the wealthy school will attract highly qualified teachers who command higher salaries on the government’s Occupation Specific Dispensation charts than their less well qualified counterparts in township and rural schools. This means that provinces sometimes end up spending more per child in better off schools, in so far as teacher salaries – the largest share of the education budget – is concerned. The skewing of the best teachers to the schools of the better-off is guaranteed by the topping up of salaries through fees collected by school governing bodies.

School funding and infrastructure

When it comes to school funding overall, while government is no longer implementing deliberate inequality —progress we should never take for granted— it is implementing a policy of more-or-less neutral equality with little prospect of undoing the inequality of the past.

The legacy effect of highly unequal provision of school infrastructure, accumulated over years, is another feature of funding. Here government is making efforts to reverse the legacy of apartheid, but too slowly and without a proper framework. 93% of schools do not have a functioning library; 90% of schools have no computer centre; 46% of schools have inadequate sanitation facilities. A school in the highest poverty quintile is unlikely to have a school hall, a science laboratory, playing fields or sufficient security. South Africa’s 395 mud schools amount to little more than a row of cramped, often unsafe rooms in which learners squat on the floor or crowd around scarce textbooks.

An international perspective on South Africa’s spending on education

South Africa spends more on education than other countries in the Southern Africa region and yet lags behind some of these countries in learner outcomes. The report of the Southern Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) shows that when evaluating the performance of the poorest 25% of learners, South Africa ranks 14th out of 15 sub-Saharan countries for reading and 12th for maths. However, it must be noted that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have not achieved the universal primary enrolment that South Africa has. This means that whereas South Africa’s spending is divided by the whole population of young people, this is not the case in other parts of the continent.

Additionally, while South Africa does spend approximately 5.3% of its GDP on education – a proportion that meets the global standard - the amount invested in real terms is not comparable to the amount invested in developed economies. This is because South Africa’s overall GDP is much smaller. In fact, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (2008) the entire sub-Saharan African region spends less on education than a single country like Germany or the UK. The UK spends approximately $1,962 of its GDP per capita on education per year while South Africa spends $436, less than a quarter. Finland – a country much lauded for its outstanding results in literacy and numeracy – spends an extraordinary $5,502 of its GDP per capita on education. When spent efficiently and effectively, school funding is correlated with a significant impact on performance.

Funding is far from the only important input, but is relevant

There is a convincing body of research which shows there are multiple inputs that have an impact on learner achievement. Among them are infrastructure, class size and textbooks. A 2011 survey by Glewwe et al looked at 73 studies conducted over 20 years to try to find out what variables have a measurable impact. One of the clearest findings is that having a fully functioning school —one with better quality roofs, walls or floors, with desks, tables and chairs, and with a school library— appears conducive to student learning (p.44). Second, reducing class size has a direct impact on achievement. One of the most well known studies, the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio Study (STAR), conducted in the United States in the late 1980s, used randomized control trials to show that reducing class size had a significant impact on student achievement. Lastly, the most recent SACMEQ research shows that having sufficient textbooks is a key component of learner outcomes. In South Africa, among the poorest 20% of learners, 37% do not have access to their own reading textbook.

At the same time, Servaas van den Berg’s recent paper, Low Quality Education as a Poverty Trap, suggests that there are various non-monetary school inputs which positively affect learner outcomes, such as improving discipline and reducing teacher absenteeism. School management and governance are shown to be critical.

Schools are the right place to begin changing the lives of millions of underserved youth. Nicholas Spaull’s analysis of the most recent SACMEQ data shows that a child’s socio-economic background matters less for her performance than the socio-economic conditions of the school she attends. This means that despite their present role as re-inscribers of social inequality, schools actually have the potential to interrupt and reduce social inequality.

Despite evidence demonstrating the importance of equitable and adequate school funding, many South Africans tend to discount its importance. One of the reasons is that corruption and maladministration have made us understandably cynical about interventions which would require government to efficiently spend large quantities of public money. The creation of frameworks for targeted and accountable spending is therefore essential. This is the essence of Equal Education’s case for Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.

With a combination of sustained investment, targeted redistribution to the most marginal, and strong mechanisms of accountability, South Africa’s impressive investment in education will begin to show results.