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Quality Education Drives Economic Growth

Is improved GDP creating better education, or is it education that's improving the GDP?

25/01/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 25/01/2017 13:48 SAST
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Co-founder and Chairperson of the South African Media Monitoring and Measurement Association, Oresti Patricios.

While there is debate about the tools used to measure the quality of South Africa's education system, what cannot be argued is that education in SA is in crisis. It doesn't deliver the outcomes that this country and its people need for growth or sustainable development. The South African education system was cruelly hamstrung by apartheid, which engineered privilege for whites and created a schooling system that crudely fashioned black minds for mass labour. Apartheid education was all about ensuring blacks played a support role to white economic ownership.

Twenty-two years into our democracy, this relic has not been replaced with a workable alternative. SA's education divide is as profound as it was during apartheid because it still replicates white privilege.

I say this because a Model C school in Sandton is much better resourced than a school a few kilometres away in Alexandra township. Add to this disparity SA's politicking, corruption, local government mismanagement, service delivery failures and an inability to manage outcomes. The year has just begun and already there are reports about issues with textbooks in Limpopo, and stories about upset teachers who've had to dig into their own pocket to fork out for student stationery at government schools. But at private and Model C schools, the learning year always begins well.

And what about those kids that will be taught in mud schools or under trees? Or the people in poor rural communities that are forced to deal with overcrowded classrooms, untrained and unmotivated teachers, and serious infrastructure shortfalls? What can business do to change this? The first step is to make a policy decision that education is our most important goal — the one thing we need to re-gear. Everything else can follow. There are hundreds of millions of rands sitting in corporates that are earmarked for social good. In my mind that money needs to go where it will make the biggest difference - to education initiatives that work.

But let me make the business case for this. SA is still an import economy is because we simply don't have the high skill levels required. Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics and leader in sustainable development pointed this out [again] when he was here last year. Sachs says that, to make globalisation work, the number one, two and three priorities for SA are education (followed by quality of governance and public investment).

An increase in cognitive skills (which would be the result of good quality education) has a direct bearing on average annual growth rate in GDP per capita.

Business and industry will provide employment for people with the right skills; but business needs to focus on education to make this happen. It's in business' own self interest to do so, as only by improving overall skill levels can we move into a more diversified export base. Measuring education and its effects on the economy has been done by various agencies, and data needs to be interrogated over decades to see how spend impacts growth. Thanks to organisations like the World Bank and independent university-based researchers, there is good data we can mine for long-term trends.

The World Bank's World Development Indicators (WDI) database can be studied for data going back 20 years, and it shows that for every dollar spent on education, GDP grows by $20, on average, worldwide. This simple statistic begs the question: is improved GDP creating better education, or is it the education that's improving the GDP? Fabrizio Carmignani, Professor at Griffith Business School, Griffith University, used historical data to interrogate the causal relationship, and found that, beyond doubt, "countries that spent more on education as a proportion of GDP in 1990-99 experienced faster growth in the subsequent decade."

Carmignani also looked at numerous reports and meta-analyses done by academics across the world that evaluated the relationship between financial growth and improved education. In general, he found that there was a positive effect from increased expenditure on education.

But it's not a simple equation, of more investment in education automatically improving the GDP – in other words, we cannot simply throw more money at the problem. An important criterion, and one that has been hard to measure, is quality of education. One study cited by Carmignani reports that an increase in cognitive skills (which would be the result of good quality education) has a direct bearing on average annual growth rate in GDP per capita.

Sachs refers to results of the PISA test, an internationally comparable test that evaluates achievement in maths, literacy and science across several countries. Unlike the WEF study, which merely asked business leaders for subjective evaluations, PISA tests a cross-section of students that represent a comprehensive sample group.

The results obtained in PISA by South Africa was second-to-last, ahead of Peru, in terms of overall test scores. SA is also demonstrating sluggish growth. Countries that score highly in terms of PISA scores and growth include Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and China, countries that focus on excellence in education.

It can be argued that benchmarks are contested: a test devised in the west to western standards may not match the SA experience the politicians say. And, at times, there are issues with bad research. The oft-quoted WEF rankings of 2014, which placed SA as the worst of 148 countries, is a good example of such poor research. As Nic Spaull showed in the Mail & Guardian at the time, "the methods used to calculate these education rankings are subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lack any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability." Spaull points out that the WEF rankings were based on the opinions of business leaders in each country, not on any scientific tests or studies.

But despite this it is clear that SA is in trouble — let's not argue about how to rearrange the deckchairs while the Titanic is shipping water. Speaking to News24 following the matric results of 2015, Spaull pointed out some depressing statistics. Of all South African learners who registered for Grade 1 in 2003, only half made it to Grade 12 in 2015. Of those, 75,8% passed matric, but only 28% did so with a 'bachelor pass', qualifying them for university entrance.

The problem goes right down to the foundation phase. The Department of Education acknowledges that "South African children are not able to read at expected levels, and are unable to execute tasks that demonstrate key skills associated with Literacy." This is borne out by statistics from the international PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). If learners are unable to 'read to learn', they are at a disadvantage going forward, a 'domino effect' that impacts on any type of study they may undertake in the future. Poor education feeds into unemployment, as more and more undereducated people enter the job market.

Unemployment figures show that SA has a high unemployment rate among the undereducated. Despite government's stated aim of decreasing unemployment, according to Stats SA, unemployment increased from 23,7% in 2009 to 25,3% in 2015, with many South Africans having been unemployed for more than five years (considered 'long-term unemployed'). Persons with less than a matric qualification accounted for 59,1% of the long-term unemployed in 2015.

The Stats SA figures for youth in the employment market indicate that things are getting worse for youngsters entering the job market, and this is largely due to a lack of skills.

Why is South African education in this state? This question comes with considerable political and social nuance. Education researcher Nic Spaull identified the following root causes, in a 2014/15 study:

  • Weak institutional functionality (state capacity);
  • undue union influence;
  • weak teacher content knowledge and pedagogy;
  • wasted learning time.

Spaull was researching the quality of primary education in 14 Sub-Saharan countries for his doctoral thesis. While over half of South Africans live below the national poverty line (on less than R25.50 per day) and more than 22% live in extreme poverty (on less than R11.00 per day), Spaull says that those who look to education to provide a way out of poverty for their children are denied this basic human right. "This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self-worth," he says.

South Africa already spends as much as the most progressive countries on education—some 5% of GDP—so it's not about throwing more money at the problem. The solution lies elsewhere: in changing attitudes and improving efficiencies. And, sadly, we cannot expect government to do this.

They say that an uneducated populace supports tyranny, and, as lovers of capitalism and the free market, we need to work together to ensure our future survival and self interest.

The onus is on business and civil society to step in where government has failed. And there are numerous organisations that do this, from non-profits like Olico and Partners for Possibility, to private initiatives like ad agency Joe Public's One School At A Time. What I found in my work with one of these organisations, Partners for Possibility (PfP), was that it is relatively inexpensive to make a significant impact. I was partnered with a headmaster from Alexandra, who was only too happy to let me help him to look for solutions. One of the problems he had was communication, and getting parental involvement.

Traditionally, in many communities, there is a gap between teachers and parents. Parents hand their children over to the school, expecting them to shoulder the full burden of disciplining them and teaching them a work ethic. Teachers, by the same token, often become defensive when parents make enquiries and appear to challenge them. There is generally little effective communication between the school body and parents. Research found that generally parents would like to help, but don't know how.

The learners will often take advantage of this gap and use it to get away with doing as little work as possible. Clearly this can become a vicious cycle of miscommunication, blaming and recrimination. One of the first things we instituted at the school I am involved with in Alexandra, was to set up a communication system. Most parents have smartphones, or at least feature phones, so we used an SMS-based system that ensured that parents were kept in the loop.

Secondly, we set up meetings with both parents and teachers present, to map out a method of collaboration, defining exactly who had to fulfil what roles, what expectations could reasonably be met, and what assumptions were in fact invalid. As long as both parents and teachers knew what was expected of them, what was once a situation of opposition became one of teamwork. From there on, the 'real world' stuff, like stocking the library, setting up audio visual systems and equipping computer labs was a relatively straightforward case of fund-raising drives asking for donations — like getting a big company to sponsor new computers for the computer lab.

The results, after just a couple of years, have been amazing. Class averages overall have improved, and in some subjects by two symbols. The pass rate has naturally also improved. These outcomes—from what essentially has been some change management that empowered a highly motivated headmaster—speak for themselves. South Africa faces many challenges, but sorting out SA's education system can resolve most of our dilemmas and is in our highest self interest. Big business needs to step in and to fund this fix, by supporting those who have proven themselves in this sector: educations civics like Olico, Partners for Possibility, and Equal Education. All of these organisations have shown — over years — how they can impact outcomes.

They say that an uneducated populace supports tyranny, and, as lovers of capitalism and the free market, we need to work together to ensure our future survival and self interest. The best investment we can make is in education solutions that work. I've thrown my lot in with Partners for Possibility. I am giving time, resources and whatever I can muster because this organisation is changing the future. What are you doing?