Incentives for education?

2013-01-21 00:00

DAWIE Roodt wrote a very stimulating article in Business Day recently about the potential use of incentives to encourage pupils to give of their best in order to produce much better quality matric results.

I agree with his sentiments. I do not, however, agree with his proposed mechanism of incentivisation. Dishing out cash incentives to school leavers is a seductive idea and may well work for the relative few that receive and use the cash windfall wisely.

Because of the ravages of the past and the unfortunate low level of motivation among many teachers and pupils, we need to at least attempt a much more macro transformation of the value systems throughout the country with regard to the value of education, both to the individual and to the country as a whole.

With this thought in mind I would like to suggest that we take Roodt’s idea and expand it radically to embrace the entire school-going population. We need a system that encourages everyone, and at least offers everyone, the same opportunities. The system must include both teachers and learners, and it must aim at incentivising the system and changing the way we view and experience education.

What Roodt is right about is that people behave in a way that will result in incentives they want or need.

What we as a country need is a system that produces people who are energised to improve their knowledge and skills in a way that benefits all of us, including the individual. I believe this is where Roodt’s suggestion falls a little short. The reward is to the individual, but the team that helped him or her get there are left out of the equation.

In order to create the change we want, the incentives must contribute in the right way with the right messaging to create a different end result. We do not want a few successful individuals; we want a winning educational system and a winning nation.

In strategy, we always start with the end results in mind. Matric is not the end-point. It is only a licence to start learning. Nothing more, nothing less.

So how do we incentivise people to continue the journey?

Firstly, as a country we must decide which skills and knowledge we wish to promote. This cannot be a one-off exercise. It is an initiative and approach that must be revisited at least annually, and tweaked as and when this is needed so that our education system is always pointed at the right, most desirable end result.

The system would work like this.

From the onset of schooling pupils would start to earn credits. In the first few years of education the focus should be on literacy and numeracy. The more numerate and literate one is, the more credits you earn. This should operate on a graded basis until probably around Grade 4 or Grade 5, when additional, critical functional skills like computer literacy and perhaps some others, should also be brought into play. There is no reason, for example, why sporting skills could not also be incentivised in this way. Indeed, it may be an excellent way to ensure that children at school learn the importance of balance in one’s life, while at the same time ensuring that we progressively rid ourselves of the growing propensity towards obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.

Once a pupil hits high school, the incentive credits become increasingly focused on the skills and knowledge needs of the country. These needs should include cultural and sporting needs, by the way.

By the time a pupil reaches matric, he or she will have a very good idea of how many credits he or she has earned and what those credits will buy for the future.

And what will the credits buy?

The credits must buy more education or skills training in whatever activity or direction the individual wishes to pursue. The more the credits, the better the tertiary education they will be able to buy.

How do they spend their credits?

Instead of the current system, which is fraught with all sorts of inexplicable nuances, the credit system will show very clearly from a very early age where the individual will obtain the most valuable credits. We need maths and science graduates desperately. In this system, those will be the subjects that earn the highest credits. We need to churn out graduates in scientific and technical areas — these will be the areas in which the credits acquire the most valuable currency.

We have not forgotten the teachers.

Teachers will also earn credits for pupils who have earned credits. The more credits earned by pupils in a teacher’s care, the more credits the teacher will earn. The higher the value of the credits earned the more credits the teacher will earn. Obviously, distinctions will earn higher credits than an ordinary pass, and so on.

What will the teachers be able to trade their credits for? More education. This way, we create a culture where the teaching body is also incentivised to upgrade their skills to world-class levels. Credits should also be tradable for teachers to experience sabbaticals at other learning institutions, both locally and abroad.

Teaching is arguably the most important profession there is. If nothing else, all other professions would have to acknowledge that they are all dependent on the excellence of education for the excellence of their profession. Therefore, we should build into this process special reward for those teachers who do go the extra mile.

At age 60, or within five years of retirement, teachers would probably not be looking to extend and develop their knowledge. However, these teachers have a wealth of experience and wisdom to share. They should, therefore, be rewarded for doing this. Teachers who are prepared to mentor and develop new teachers should be given credits for doing so, which they can exchange for extra pension or medical benefits. In addition to this, those teachers who wish to continue after retirement date with the mentoring and coaching role should be given extra credits, which they once again could exchange for additional medical or pension benefits.

The final and obvious question would be how to fund this?

The funds already exist. They are just not very effectively applied. Institutions are inherently wasteful of other people’s money. The tertiary institutions obtain most of their funding from the tax payer. They will continue to obtain their funding from the tax payer, but they will have to deliver education and skills training needed by the nation, otherwise they will not attract students with credits that they wish to trade. Institutions will be able to convert credits into cash by presenting these to the state in return for the funds they need to offer the education we need.

Perhaps the most critical part of such a system will be the continuing focus on excellence: the unrelenting drive to be the best that one can be in one’s chosen place in life, and the creation of a culture where education has real value and the nation is prepared to fund it on a completely fair and equitable basis.

• Tony Frost is MD of Sirocco Strategy Management.

We need a system that energises people to improve themselves in a way that benefits us all, writes TONY FROST

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