Not a month has gone by in 2016 without some part of the education sector making headlines, elevating it to one of the most pertinent issues on the national agenda.
The echoes of the challenges in this sector, both in basic and tertiary education, have no doubt been heard in the strategic planning sessions of corporate South Africa. The private sector will have taken heed of these concerns, partly because it influences the national political agenda and partly because of its impact on the future availability of appropriately qualified employees.
But I would like to argue that education should be on the corporate agenda for another reason – as a way of earning our social license to operate.
Earning the trust of our communities
Corporations have over time grown to become some of the largest economic entities in the world. By some estimates, 50 of the 100 largest economic entities are companies and even in South Africa the largest listed corporations have a reach that stretches far wider than our own borders, with financial capabilities to match.
South African companies are no doubt sensitive to the challenges facing our beautiful country and the need to use some of their financial and corporate influence to positively affect the challenges created by the poisonous mix of inequality, poverty, unemployment and poor education.
By directly addressing these challenges, South African companies effectively bridge the gap in trust between them and the communities in which they operate and to which they are selling their products and services. This makes it both a social and a financial imperative.
Education provides the greatest leverage
Of the many challenges facing South Africa, I believe education offers the greatest future leverage. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Global School Ranking report (2015), South Africa’s GDP would grow by 2,624% over their lifetime if all students achieved a basic level of education to just the age of 15.
With this in mind, education truly has the greatest capacity for creating abundance. It is also the best long term investment in creating a prosperous community that is both receptive to the range of products and services that we sell and that are capable of driving the future growth of our organisations and this country.
But merely directing some of your organisation’s corporate social investment funds into painting classrooms or starting a vegetable garden will not provide the fundamental and long-lasting change that is required. To do this, as is so clearly articulated by the Business as an Agent for World Benefit movement, organisations will have to apply some of their unique skills to the problem at hand.
Sustainable and systematic change
One social enterprise has created a very well-considered programme to not only harness the capabilities of organisations, but also foster long term change in organisations.
Partners for Possibility (PfP) creates partnerships between a business leader and a school principal of an under-resourced school. This partnership, which is formally managed for a year and often extends well beyond that, is structured as an equal partnership between the two leaders, with the primary aim of growing their leadership capacity.
The thinking behind this leadership capacitation programme is that no other intervention in an under-resourced school is likely to flourish if the school lacks strong leadership skills. The unfortunate reality is that most of the 20 000 principals in under-resourced schools are ill prepared for their highly challenging job of managing the school, its finances, the demands from hundreds or thousands of children and their parents, social ills such as drug usage and teenage pregnancy and the ever increasing burden from their district office and the provincial education department.
Through this process, both the business leader and school principal receive leadership training and professional coaching, while the practical element of their training is finding the major challenges of their specific school and creating solutions to solve them.
Growing future leaders
At Nedbank, we have sent scores of current and future business leaders on the PfP programme. In return, we have seen these leaders being challenged in an environment completely different from their own and one in which they do not have any positional power. At the same time, we see these leaders become far more sensitive to the challenges facing South Africa and many of their customers or constituents.
In working with PfP and seeing the improvement in the many schools that we are involved with, we have seen the importance of getting directly involved in one of South Africa’s biggest social challenges. The time is right and the benefits of getting involved, immeasurable.