In September 2015, leaders from South Africa and 192 other countries made a unanimous commitment to the next generation by setting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.
The goals include ‘No Poverty’ (Goal 1), ‘Zero Hunger’ (Goal 2), ‘Good Health and Well-being’ (Goal 3) and ‘Quality Education’ (Goal 4). These are very ambitious goals and without meaningful collaboration between the business sector, government and civil society, there is little hope that they will be achieved as early as 2030, if ever.
Since the day that the SDGs were signed at the United Nations, many individuals and organisations have been working hard to develop strategies to achieve them. Last week, for instance, a group of 400 leaders from all over Africa gathered for the Responsible Business Forum Africa, which was aimed at engaging business leaders in a conversation about their contribution to achieving the SDGs. I felt privileged to attend the Forum and take part in this strategic conversation.
Around the world, and particularly in the US and Europe, groups of people are developing strategies and plans to fund the SDGs and it is widely accepted that it will take trillions of dollars to achieve them.
It is therefore not surprising that the Responsible Business Forum Africa hosted a panel discussion on ‘Funding the SDGs’. The South African representatives on the panel were two well-known and respected business leaders: Colin Coleman, Head of the South African office of Goldman Sachs, and Wendy Dobson, Head of Group Policy, Advocacy and Sustainability at Standard Bank.
I was, however, stirred by the discussion, and I now keep wondering what it will take to shift the story that is being told by such esteemed and respected South African business leaders.
Coleman shared that members of the CEO Initiative have established the SMME Fund and the Youth Employment Scheme and anticipate that both will contribute to Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.
While these initiatives offer hope to entrepreneurs and unemployed youth, it is crucial that sufficient attention be given to achieving the goal that is the enabler of all the others, namely Goal 4: Quality Education.
South Africa’s education system is widely seen as a major barrier to the achievement of the country’s development goals. The OECD has shown that there is a direct correlation between a country’s academic performance and its economic growth. Worryingly, international assessments routinely show that the academic performance of South African schoolchildren is among the poorest in the world. Last year, The Economist called South Africa’s education system ‘one of the worst in the world’.
There are many reasons for the current state of affairs and many of them can be traced back to Apartheid, and in particular to the Bantu Education Act, which denied black people access to the same educational opportunities and resources enjoyed by white South Africans. Most of the principals and teachers in our 25,000 schools did not benefit from a high-quality education. Moreover, South Africa is one of the few countries that does not require a specific qualification for principalship; a teaching qualification and teaching experience are the only requirements for becoming a school principal. As a result, most of the principals, who head up schools in South Africa, have not been properly prepared and equipped for their demanding and critical task. Many teachers have also not been sufficiently trained.
When I asked Coleman and Dobson to speak about the role of business with regard to funding SDG4 (Quality Education), I realised that it is time to challenge their story.
Coleman pointed out that education is the largest line item in our national budget and insisted that the Department of Basic Education – and by implication the government – needs to be held to account to improve education. ‘It is not something that business should get involved with’, Coleman said.
But what if our education department simply doesn’t have the knowledge, skills and wherewithal to lead the massive, large-scale complex change process that is required to turn around an education system that is clearly in crisis? What if we needed a large-scale change process that will require financial and human resources far beyond what the education department can mobilise?
To ‘fix’ our education system will require large-scale investment to:
- Equip principals with the knowledge and skills to lead complex organisations;
- Develop the Instructional Leadership Skills of school management teams;
- Train teachers to teach;
- Develop the capacity of School Governing Bodies to govern schools;
- Implement technology;
- Fix infrastructure at schools;
- Equip officials with the skills to support principals and educators.
We are not talking about ‘business-as-usual’ here. We are talking about a large-scale transformation of a system that is not working. When businesses embark on these kinds of large-scale change projects, they invest the money to support the change process which is what is now required with regard to South Africa’s education system.
The future of EVERYONE in South Africa is at stake. If we don’t fix our education system within the next 10 years, our businesses will be unable to function because our country will be unable to function.
What if fixing our education system requires ALL of us to get involved?
What if business realised that this is OUR problem and not something that we can simply surrender to government?
To this question, Dobson responded that people who care about better education should start private schools like Curro and Spark and ask businesses to invest in them. This view is clearly influenced by those who have been promoting a narrative about ‘low-cost private education’ as the answer to South Africa’s education problem.
But hold on: We have almost 12 million children in our public education system TODAY. We need to figure out a way (together) to improve the system they are part of NOW. Only about one-tenth of our children are in private schools, while nine-tenths rely on a public sector education. We simply don’t have the luxury of waiting until thousands more private schools have been established so that business can invest in them.
What if we made Goal 4: Quality Education a goal for ALL of us in South Africa, including and perhaps especially for the business sector? What if we tapped into South Africa’s ‘gold dust’ – business leaders with the knowledge, skills and experience of leading large-scale complex change to help steer us from where we are now towards a better future for ALL our children?
This is what we are doing at Partners for Possibility, and we are looking for more business leaders who are willing to join our movement, ‘Business as a force for good in education’ and mobilise their networks of colleagues, accountants, HR and IT experts, members of faith-based organisations and others to strengthen management and leadership skills in our schools.