The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Blog: Rebuilding trust in a context of suspicion: South Africa’s failing education system

Photo: A child at a school in Sierra Leone. Photo credit: GPE/Stephan/Flickr licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

May 2018

In his first speech as President, South Africa’s Ramaphosa promised to ‘turn the tide of corruption’, vowing to end the ‘plunder of public resources’ and to ‘put behind us the era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in our country’s public leaders.

With a new President and the promise of a new era in South African democracy, there may be an opportunity to rebuild trust, accountability and capacity across the country. A new ESRC/DfID-funded study on ‘Accountability, trust and capacity to improve learning outcomes’ led by researchers at University College London aims to do just that.

South Africa has a long history of oppression and apartheid which have led to great inequalities, despite South Africa’s classification as an upper-middle income country (World Bank, 2008). 26 years after the fall of apartheid, the systematic racial segregation practiced under apartheid, in conjunction with an overtly white supremacist ideology still has a profound impact on South Africa’s society as well as its education system. Corruption and an incapable state has affected all public services and has violated citizens’ trust in the government to enable education for all.

Trust is not only conditional to a country’s general welfare but is also a key condition for the improvement of education. Without trust, people oppose accountability and monitoring, which subsequently limits the use of monitoring information to redistribute resources and provide additional capacity where needed.

The study has already highlighted how the Department of Education aims to compensate for the chronic inequalities in resourcing and provision of education by classifying schools into quintiles. Schools in quintile 1 are designated as the poorest institutions, receiving additional governmental funding, whereas schools in the wealthiest quintile 5 are expected to raise some of their funding through school fees. Principals explain how this classification is highly inaccurate as there is no census data available to inform this poverty index due the high distrust of citizens in their government’s fair and proper use of this data.

Many South Africans have vivid memories of the recent Apartheid regime where such data was used to suppress and police professionals and are wary of providing personal information to the government. Any kind of control or accountability is interpreted as punitive, rather than having a focus on learning and improvement. In the absence of accurate census data, the Department of Education has to use unreliable aerial photography to classify schools into quintiles, effectively ignoring the reality of informal settlements or townships near wealthier areas, or of learners who travel long distances from poor areas to better-resourced schools in wealthier areas. As a result, some of the poorest schools don’t receive the funding they are in need of, depriving children from basic educational sources, such as free school meals, textbooks and adequate infrastructure.

Building trust requires public officials to keep promises, apologize when failing to do so, communicate success, involve citizens in developing new policies, and implement structures and processes which prevent future failure. Such trust-building strategies have proven to be successful in rebuilding organisational trust and need to be prioritized to prevent a potential overall loss of the legitimacy of the state and its instruments of governance and accountability. Desmond Tutu’s Post-Apartheid ‘Truth and Reconciliation committee’ is one example of how authorities can attempt to combat and rebuild distrust due to integrity violations.

In our research we hope to find examples of where trust has been rebuilt and where school staff are working in an effective and supportive environment of transparent accountability and are building capacity for improvement of learning outcomes.   


See also: Trust and Accountability seminar video, April 2018, UCL London Institute of Education.


The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


The Impact Initiative welcomes comments.  To enable a healthy environment for discussion we reserve the rights to remove comments if they are considered abusive or disruptive. All comments are reactively moderated. This means that comments are usually only checked if a complaint is made about them.