The South African educational crisis stems largely from dysfunctional and under-resourced public schools that lead to poor quality learning environments and unequal outcomes for students. Doron Isaacs is building a movement of students, parents, and teachers—led by young changemakers—to collectively fix the country’s schools from the inside out.
The New Idea
The quality and infrastructure of secondary schools in South Africa are among the lowest in the world. Thus far, the attempts to solve this problem have failed because there is an obvious, although largely missed link that had not yet been established: the role of students in bettering their schools and their country’s education system at-large. To establish this link, Doron created Equal Education (EE), the only organization in South Africa that directly involves young people and their parents to ensure a quality and equal education for all. This is done by organizing young people in their schools, providing them with quality information, ensuring that they and their parents are included at every level of the decision-making process, and creating a powerful bridge between citizens and the government.
Led by young changemakers, EE seeks to improve the poor quality of education by building an understanding of the educational system, while drawing attention to and actively addressing problems faced by schools and their communities. EE gives students and the school community a voice and the resources to get organized and address these challenges. While working to promote systemic change in education, young people develop critical thinking skills, leadership, and teamwork skills through a personal and group development process, and then apply this new consciousness and skill set to make change at the community, school, and societal levels.
In less than five years, EE has had impact both at the school community level (i.e. fixing schools, dropping student late-coming rates, increasing student performance, and building and staffing libraries) and at the national policy level (i.e. having government adopt minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure and passing policy changes in national curriculum). EE is now consolidating its presence in three provinces and building the conditions to spread the movement nationally.
While South Africa has one of the highest school access rates among developing countries, this fact is very misleading, because it is equated with children receiving a quality education. Indeed, overall literacy and numeracy rates are low. The Annual National Assessment results of 2011 report the grade 3 mean literacy score at 35 percent and numeracy at 28 percent; grade 6 mean literacy score at 28 percent and numeracy at 30 percent. This low learner achievement picture hides the duality of the South African education system: the path to guaranteeing universal access is not being pursued with a parallel increase in the quality and outcomes for students.
The challenge of quality education hides an even more dramatic challenge that plays a significant role in that only 30 percent of the population completes their schooling. This challenge is that 75 percent of schools are actually dysfunctional. Some characteristics of these schools include teachers with weak content knowledge, incompetent school management, a lack of a learning culture, lack of discipline and order, slow curriculum coverage and minimal testing, high dropout rates and low levels of learning. The material evidence of this complex dysfunction can be stated by the fact that out of approximately 24,500 public schools in South Africa, 3,600 have no electricity, 2,400 have no water and over 20,000 (82 percent) have no libraries, science laboratories, or computer centers. For most young people, what they have—brains, dreams and determination—cannot make up for what they were not given: text books, libraries, calculators, and well-prepared and well-paid teachers.
This current material problem stems from a legacy of systemic malfunction during the apartheid years. The system set out to deliberately intellectually dispossess the black majority and this is why education was characterized by gross inequality in its financing and consequent quality. While this was reflected in all areas of school funding, the legacy of these policies is perhaps most visible in school infrastructure. There are no doubts about the intricate relation between poor school infrastructure and quality of learning reflected in student outcomes (i.e. non-deliverance of textbooks, classes cancelled due to lack of electricity, students missing classes because there are no toilets, and so on).
There are numerous citizen organizations (COs) and human rights organizations that have been active for years in regard to the problems of South African education. Their strengths are that they have produced a lot of useful data and research. They would bet that with the proper data and analysis in place, government would pass laws on minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, implement effective teacher training programs, reform school curriculum and so forth. History shows that this apparently natural movement did not occur, with the wide lack of implementation of basic education policies in the country as just one of many examples. Therefore, these COs have been less effective in driving an agenda for change and mobilizing society at-large behind it. None of them have, so far, been able to generate the active involvement of the hundreds of thousands of young people who are most directly affected by these problems.
Doron founded Equal Education (EE) in 2008 after conducting research in schools in Khayelitsha. With the aim of supporting the many determined learners, and hardworking teachers within the community who are attempting to learn and teach in difficult conditions, Doron conceived EE as a movement of young changemakers to fix schools from the inside out.
Since it was intended to be a true movement of young learners from the onset, Doron’s theory of change called for a strategy from the bottom-up. Research and policy and budget analysis (the very way in which it all started) are the initial steps. Then the knowledge captured from this ground work is used to produce reports, fact sheets, posters, pamphlets, videos and web-based content through social media. This makes the information accessible to EE’s members and society at-large by communicating the truth about school problems in a powerful way. Next there are two concomitant paths: on one hand, EE runs Youth Group meetings with its 1,500 most active members, the Equalizers (i.e. high school students in grades 8 to 12 who have a leading role in the activities of EE), as well as Parent Workshops, which generate a series of trainings through seminars and camps with the objective of raising awareness, motivating and planning actions in communities across South Africa to fix the country’s schools. Thus, the primary unit of participation and organization is the weekly Youth Group meeting. Dozens of these occur across the country to bring together youth with trained facilitators. Parents have similar structures in their branches. Facilitators are trained by EE with facts, knowledge, facilitation skills, regularly updated material, and permanent support. When a campaign, challenge, or crisis is prioritized by members this becomes the focus of discussion, research, legal action, organization, and public advocacy.
On the other hand, this knowledge and data also feed into EE’s Law Center which analyses the findings compared to what current national legislation proclaims and sends press-releases and opinion papers to media mavens, Chapter 9 institutions (i.e. created by South Africa’s constitution to guard democracy, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Auditor-General), to provincial and national government education departments and even to Parliament, to inform and hold government accountable for the failures of the educational system.
After these two parallel paths—Youth Groups and Law Center—are pursued, they both converge to create campaigns led by the Equalizers, which drive key issues of education quality and equality in a manner that builds public understanding, locates education as a human rights issue and progressively grows EE as a movement. The most important aspect of every campaign is the concrete action learners implement in their schools.
The campaign for minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure is an example. It seeks to address a critical educational issue facing millions of young South Africans: inadequate school infrastructure, which is directly linked to the absence of any legally binding standards for school infrastructure. EE successfully engaged more than 200,000 youth by training them in how to identify problems in infrastructure, report and act to make improvements themselves, especially since they could observe school operations as learners. EE took the Minister of Basic Education to court to sign an agreement that now equips the minister with a framework to hold provinces to account for their infrastructure programs. Establishing a formal accountability mechanism, the norms and standards will accelerate a positive feedback loop of bottom-up community accountability. Binding standards, with a manageable implementation timetable, will provide every community with a tangible translation of their education rights. They will enable learners, parents, and teachers to create local accountability for delivery.
The main objective of every EE action is to promote change in education by building models of excellence on the ground that involve the school community through young learner leaders, which (besides bettering the schools) can lead to change in national policy from the bottom-up. For example, the Bookery Project to create libraries in every school; EE is proving that many of the severe problems of illiteracy can be tackled by ensuring that every public school has a stocked library serviced by a qualified full-time librarian. Besides successfully influencing the first National Guidelines for School Libraries and Information Services from the Department of Basic Education, EE’s Bookery Project opened—through the student’s initiative—23 fully-functioning school libraries, most with librarians employed by EE from among their youth members. Another EE project addresses both unemployment and the poor quality of education in a year-long post-matric gap-year program that bridges leading Equalizers from high school into university, and provides them with leadership training. This project, the Community Leadership Program, has successfully enabled over twenty EE members to gain access to top universities, such as the University of Cape Town. They then reinvest their time in EE throughout their studies.
In less than five years, EE’s impact can be seen at the school community level: (i) EE has been engaging more than 200,000 youth in its campaigns and projects, through the leadership of a core of 1,500 Equalizers, the active daily members who take part on all decision-making levels of the organization (ii) the Western Cape government announced that seven schools slated for closure would be kept open (a result of EE’s work) (iii) schools, such as Luhlaza High School are being fixed after student campaigns (iv) Late-coming has been brought down in Khayelitsha due to EE’s annual student campaign (v) a group of Xhosa first-language learners excluded from an Afrikaans first-language school were accommodated (vi) corporal punishment was stopped in one school (vii) the matric pass-rate in Khayelitsha has improved significantly since EE was established, from under 50 percent in 2009 to almost 70 percent in 2012.
EE has also had a significant impact at the level of national policy, including: (i) four provinces adopting school library policies and programs (ii) National Guidelines for School Libraries and Information Services being issued by the Department of Basic Education (iii) National School Infrastructure Maintenance Guidelines being issued by the DBE (iv) the government is presently reviewing the rules around grade repetition to reduce high dropout/low retention rates which EE has made a national issue.
EE’s most profound impact is on the individual. This is where real transformation takes place. Many young people who came into EE in 2008, while in high school, are today at university, succeeding in their first jobs or leading their own civic movements and organizations. They serve as inspiring leaders for other EE members and learners, and many are instrumental to spread EE. From its base in Khayelitsha, which remains its head office, the movement continues to grow nationally. In 2012, EE was active in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, and opened a new office in Tembisa, Gauteng. Doron does not want growth to be resource-intensive, but rather based on a model that equips learners, parents, teachers, and communities to use EE’s methods.
Doron was born and raised in Durban, and learned early how diverse and contrast South Africa is. His family values led him to spend a significant portion of his life engaged in the fields of social justice, freedom, and equality. One experience that helped him build his confidence and identity as a social entrepreneur was in the early 2000s, when Doron became involved with the South African branch of Habonim, the progressive Jewish youth movement founded in the 1920s. In less than three years, Doron became its national head, organizing some of their largest summer camps in the Southern Hemisphere. Because Habonim values engaged citizenship and strives to educate its members to create a just and equal post-apartheid South Africa, having such an important role so early enabled Doron to strengthen his leadership skills, while connected to a firm belief in the role young people could play to shape the future.
In 2006 while studying law at the University of Cape Town, the South African parliament was considering a controversial piece of legislation which would have amended the constitution, and made the independent courts subject to the control of the Minister of Justice. Doron organized a debate which involved many important public figures, to engage students to bring this issue to the public sphere. The response from students and faculty, and the urgency for a more transparent judicial system by the people of South Africa, led him to establish, Students for Law and Social Justice. It began with a weekend seminar, attended by 150 law students from different universities as well as legal luminaries from South Africa and abroad. The organization quickly grew into a national body on many campuses. Its annual seminar remains a student highlight, but it now works year-round. Doron realized young people could be successful in organizing themselves and have a decisive impact on law, policy, and social outcomes.
While finishing his law degree, Doron had a conversation with one of his mentors, Ashoka Fellow Zackie Achmat, about the lack of civil participation in the educational system and its policies. Doron later drew from his experience in youth organizing for what would later become Equal Education. For the first six months, he and his colleagues spent every morning sitting in high school classrooms in Khayelitsha, taking notes and reflecting on what was taking place. Each afternoon they reported on what they had seen and ran seminars for themselves on education policy and law. The time spent in those classrooms was profoundly transformative for Doron since it exposed him to a reality with which he was not familiar—a world of difficulty and hardship—that many in the middle-class are blind too. It helped him gain the necessary perspective on South African society which has been crucial to build EE.