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From crisis to the creation of a new way

The education sector needs to step outside of its comfort zone and embrace real collaboration if it wants to educate future generations effectively.

South Africans are numbed to headlines about the crisis in education. At African Education Week last week, Dr Mamphela Ramphele repeated often-voiced concerns that the government is mismanaging the education system and failing South Africa’s youth, which the government has, also somewhat on cue, hotly denied.

It’s a familiar refrain that risks taking our focus away from what is important. A crisis in education is not a good thing. It has real economic and human costs. A 2012 report by the World Literacy Foundation, for example, estimated that illiteracy costs the UK 3.75% of its GDP each year. Considering that last year’s Annual National Assessments of grades 2 to 10 in South Africa revealed an average literacy and numeracy level of 30%, this does not bode well for the country.

These and other shock statistics show that the education sector – despite many isolated gems of innovation and progress and hope – is largely floundering to find solutions that work. So where to from here? There are many things those working within the education sector can and should be doing. And it involves taking a step beyond pointing fingers towards greater collaboration – across all sectors.

Collaboration is a word that is thrown around a lot. Many talk about it but few manage to do it successfully and meaningfully.

The problem is that the entire system of western democracy is premised on a model of competition and rugged individualism that secretly thinks collaboration is for sissies. Even within the NGO sector we will compete for scarce funding – elbowing others out the way – to promote our own brand of social progress. We become arrogant, convinced that we see solutions where others don’t and worse, disregard the solutions of others because we do not have the wisdom or humility to appreciate them. Meantime, the crisis deepens around us.

And as funding around the world dries up and economies shrivel under the weight of the financial crisis and slow global recovery, competing for limited resources does not make sense.

The task – educating the youth bulge – is overwhelmingly large and we need to work together to address it. We urgently need to find new structures that enable effective collaboration. The old ways have failed us. Taking steps towards real collaboration involves building social capital and trust, understanding the obstacles to collaboration (fear, insecurity, lack of effective structures and so on) and lowering these barriers so that people are freed to work together unconditionally towards a common goal.

It is easier said than done. Fortunately, the world of business provides some pointers. Writing in Harvard Business Review Gary Pisano and Roberto Verganti say “In an era when great ideas can sprout from any corner of the world and IT has dramatically reduced the cost of accessing them, it’s now conventional wisdom that virtually no company should innovate on its own.”

The key point here is that collaboration leads to innovation and innovation is what is needed to get ourselves out of the crisis.

There are plenty of examples where collaboration among citizens, civil society, business and government has delivered results that far surpass what could have been achieved from someone or some organisation working alone. Wikipedia is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The MIT Media Lab is also renowned for churning out world-beating innovations by orchestrating collaboration across disciplines and organisations.

In the South African education landscape, the Bridge initiative and more recently the Extraordinary Schools Coalition are taking crucial first steps towards greater collaboration.

The newly launched Center for Education Innovations (CEI) is hoping to take this further and coalesce these “drops in the ocean” into a current of new energy. CEI is a global initiative – with hubs in South Africa, East Africa and India – that will showcase non-state innovations in education (programmes implemented by NGOs, social enterprises, government partnerships and private companies) across the developing world, hoping to understand, quantify and scale up effective models that are already working. The goal? To increase the access and quality of education for poor and marginalised children.

Most people across the political spectrum agree that the provision of quality education is the great leveler – we know that but somehow are not able to give it life. Yet we cannot expect our economy to thrive and to grow, we cannot compete and succeed individually or collectively if our children are not getting the education they deserve.

It is much easier not to collaborate than to collaborate. To collaborate we have to give up some things and this is hard. We need to abandon the need for comfort and embrace uncertainty and the discomfort of collaborative social innovation.

In words of Joy Olivier, founder of the highly innovative IkamvaYouth programme, that – through extensive collaboration – helps countless young South Africans beat the statistics and achieve a matric pass: “Collaboration brings real learning and this can be frustrating and uncomfortable but that is where innovation happens. We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”

The current narrative about education in South Africa is negative – filled with “shock statistics” and “crises” and “fault”. Collaboration offers us an opportunity to turn this around. If all sectors – public private and society – worked together we could achieve extraordinary things. Rather than just fixing education we have the opportunity to re-imagine it.

Image: François Bonnici, Director Bertha Centre, Emma van der Vliet, CEI SA co-ordinator, and Camilla Swart, of Bridge at Ed Week.

By François Bonnici and John Gilmour

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