The Problem of Piecemeal Reform

Disclaimer: this is a difficult piece to write.

It is difficult on two fronts: firstly, because the conclusion is frustrating. The end point I hope to illustrate is deeply unsatisfying. Unfortunately this does not make it untrue.

The second frontier of difficulty comes from the fact that, at least in South Africa (but not only in South Africa), people are sensitive to criticism, and we often conflate critiques of ideas with criticisms of people. I’m not immune to this myself: I hate having my ideas challenged, or even found wrong. So to those of you I consider friends who might not like what I write here, please see it as an engagement around ideas. I still care for you very much.

I wish to problematize the issue of ‘piecemeal reform’ in the education system. This is an issue that applies across many different interventions, including:

  • collaboration (i.e. charter) schools;
  • starting up independent, privately funded schools for the poor (whether fee charging or not);
  • small-scale NGO interventions after school (e.g. private classes on Saturdays);
  • direct private philanthropy towards individual public schools i.e. any other injection of resources (whether man hours, money, infrastructure or other) into individual institutions or groups of institutions that share a banner or name, without going via the structures of government under which that institution operates.

Let me first state up front that I do not in any way doubt the good intentions of people who undertake such projects. This critique is not an indictment on people’s desire to help, or to effect change. It must be recognised, and respected, that many people who put their money-if not their lives-into these projects, genuinely wish to see a better society, especially for our most vulnerable citizens i.e. our children. Moreover, it must be recognised that most of them are deeply frustrated. Efforts at effecting broad change have failed, hitting political walls, funding constraints, scaling issues, M&E barriers and any other version of red tape you can imagine. People wish to try and exercise their agency, and when they fail to achieve this through the state, they attempt to bypass the state.


With all the attention on the localised positive effects for one or two people, schools or communities that such undertakings bring, there is a critical issue that falls out of focus. There is a cost to these projects that goes untallied, and it is a steep price indeed.

For every such intervention-especially in a marketized schooling system like South Africa’s-…every such project irreparably fragments the public education fabric.

Each of these private interventions creates a new node, a new ‘broken off piece’ that cannot be reintegrated into the whole. And in doing so, the reach of any coherent system to conduct oversight, to redistribute resources from one area to another and to get a big-level picture of who is doing what, where, how, when and with whom, becomes increasingly difficult.

Moreover, the process is irreversible. Like smashing a clay pot, putting all the pieces back together again is just about impossible. Or imagine, if you will, an actual piece of fabric. One hole can be mended. With skill, several. But each hole weakens the structural integrity of the fabric, each tear ever so slightly weakens the tensile strength of the weave. And with enough tears and holes, mending becomes impossible, and the whole thing falls apart.

This thorny issue came up when discussing effective education interventions with a friend. He was (understandably) frustrated about how to effect systematic change, and he and his wife were considering the option of starting up a small school of their own to try and help the children they work with daily. At least this way, he argued, he could have more autonomy to do what he needed to do, and he knew his efforts would be benefitting the children he worked with in a real and tangible way.

I countered that yes, these were all true. His error is not in reasoning, but in omission: he must recognise the cost inherent in the project, and whether he was willing to contribute to the fragmentation of the public system that he claimed he believed in and wanted to fight for. Such costs are, in business speak, referred to as negative externalities-hidden downsides that are borne by society as whole, rather than by the individual entity that incurs them.

How does this fragmentation happen? What do I mean?

Another analogy: and please bear with me, this one is a little raw. But it makes the point, so as analogy it works.

Traffic pile ups

Think of good service delivery of quality education as analogous to adequate transport infrastructure. At the moment, as things stand, the system is horribly clogged and underperforming, like Cape Town’s traffic woes. Everyone is affected. The tailbacks on the highway are huge. People are late for work. Family time is intruded upon, as is sleep and health, as people have to leave earlier and earlier to commute to their jobs daily. Frustration is rising. “Peak hour” is increasingly less distinct from just everyday traffic: the intersection from the M5 to the N2, for example, is a nightmare, no matter the time of day.

There are clear systemic interventions that could improve the system. The road is widened (this is an example of systemic improvement that has an initial up front cost in the form of roadworks for improved performance later down the line). The city could hire more buses to reduce the number of private vehicles. We could fix the trains to get people off road and onto rail. All of these are system-level interventions that would benefit everybody involved. They need to be implemented by the agent that has the oversight, authority and reach to affect the whole system. That is: the government.

Now imagine being in that 5km long tailback trying to get to work. Every single driver is frustrated. Being ‘in the system’ i.e. obeying the rules of the road, is not getting you what you need. We know that the occasional deviant will pull out of the traffic and cut in further down the queue. Or, if you’re a minibus taxi, just pull up in the emergency lane and butt in at the last moment. Everyone behind throws their hands up in dispair!

Some of this deviance is driven by pure selfishness. Some by genuine need. A person rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital may feel his deviance is morally justified (and it is!). A bus driver may reason that he should get priority, given he represents a far larger number of people than the individual motorist driving alone and contributing to congestion. These scenarios help us to realise that ‘breaking away’ from the conventions of the system to pursue our own interests, or those immediately in our surroundings (our passengers, our families), are not always morally reprehensible: that is, ‘cutting in’ is not always just pure selfishness.

Rather, this scenario helps us to understand what happens when deviance, encouraged by frustration at non-performance, reaches a certain critical threshold. Because it is a scenario many of us have already begun to witness in our daily lives. One cuts in. Then two. Then three. It starts to become normal. The cutting in is not innocuous: it actually further clogs the system, those individuals taking a short cut at the cost of the others in the queue. Eventually, those who would normally choose to adhere to the common public system eventually get ‘the moer in’ with paying the price for other people’s perceived selfishness and they too begin to scrum and prioritize themselves, instead of waiting in the queue. And the entire convention disintegrates.

Getting that system back once that tipping point has been reached, is nigh on impossible. Entropy has permeated into the system and the structures have fallen apart.

How are traffic pile ups like the education system?

Each little private endeavour, which benefits one school over the others, is akin to a car cutting in. “No it isn’t!” I hear you say “I’m doing this because I want to help! Not because I’m selfish”. But this is missing the point: the person rushing to the hospital wants to help too. Just like a small school, he’s trying to do what he can for the person next to him because this seems the limit of his personal agency and scope to assist.

But that doesn’t change the effect his cutting in has on the queue. Or the irreversibility on the structural integrity of the system and conventions that keep the traffic from chaos.

We have a marketized schooling system. Children and parents are free to move around, ‘shopping’ for the school they think ‘offers the better service’. That means, any school that is perceived to have something ‘better’… whether it is ‘better teachers’, ‘better funding’, ‘better infrastructure’, ‘better management’… even if that perception is not substantiated with anything factual… any such school will create attraction points on the education landscape that naturally draw learners and parents who are more mobile and more enabled to select and be selected.

If a school is started in a township that purports to offer better maths and science opportunities, that school will command applications from the learners who, at least at a local level, excel at maths and science and want that excellence supported. The others get left behind in the other schools, who then are labelled as ‘failing’ (relatively), further exacerbating the impression of difference. The schooling landscape becomes a litany of ‘sinks’ and ‘sources’, as each school is inherently pitched against their neighbours to attract learners who are ‘easier to teach’. Localised interventions enhance these differences.

Like the guy rushing his wife to the hospital, perceiving her need over that of others, the local intentions are good, and the effect for the one or two people/children/schools involved is positive. But if we fail to see the negative costs borne by others in so doing, we ignore that we are slowly snipping away at our education fabric. For each private school that is started, another snip. Another institution that will never be reintegrated back into the fold of a system whose purpose for existing is exactly to have oversight across differences, across geographies and strata. After all, isn’t that what a government is for? To see the bigger picture on our behalf, to move resources where they are needed most?

If you do not believe in formalised government, for whatever reason, that is fine. Such fragmentation may be seen as the natural decline of a dated behemoth that has outlived its usefulness. But most people actually do not subscribe to this line of reasoning. There is an expectation that government will one day deliver the services we expect, once it has pulled up its socks. And its sock are, let’s be honest, sitting pretty low. But we need to notice when our little local projects to ‘help in the meantime’ prevent the socks from ever being pulled up at all. The system is too fragmented, with no central oversight. And nothing short of rather radical social re-engineering will ever forge the shards back into a cohesive whole.

The alternative is daunting, exhausting and demoralising: we continue to struggle and press for change from those who we gave a mandate to control the levers of power on our behalf. We do not give up on the ideal of a functional, quality public education system, where redress and equity can be enacted through coherent decision making. We continue to write in to our local councillors badgering them that our wait in the queue to get to work every morning is just unacceptable. We continue to hold our local education authorities to account. We push for capacitation of the system so that it can function to further all of our needs, because inequality hurts all of us.

There is only one mechanism to mitigate inequality in our education system. A capacitated, coherent public education system that has the means to see the broader picture and make the moves required to keep gaps from widening. All our little fractured projects dotted around the landscape will never have this reach, and hence will never be able to reduce inequality at the system level. They will only perhaps help the few in our immediate vicinity, often at the invisible cost of those elsewhere.

For each of us who wish to ‘help’, we should do so knowing the full cost of our intervention. And ask whether we would make the same decisions once all the negative externalities are in full view. Just like mining companies who pitch prospective digs on the potential positive outputs and ignore the future costs of pollution, small-scale private education interventions should, I feel, be a little more circumspect in their cost-benefit book-keeping when it comes to analysing the positive effects they claim to offer.


[please note that this post in no way exonerates the current poor performance of government, nor ignores that piecemeal delivery on the part of government e.g. between provinces or districts, also exacerbates inequalities. That is not the point of the analysis.]

[* with thanks to one K. Marx for the term ‘piecemeal reform’]

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I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

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