Shifting the Education System from the Inside Out

June 18, 2014Molly Blank

Molly started as a teacher. Following that she became a documentary filmmaker and author. She began working in South Africa as the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship in 2005.  Most recently, she co-authored the book How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools That Work, which includes 19 short films that tell the stories of schools that serve disadvantaged communities and are having academic success. Her previous award-winning films include Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa and Where Do I Stand? which both explore the experiences, perspectives and hopes of young people in South Africa. She has also worked extensively with the University of the Free State. Molly has also been recognized for her work on the Peabody Award-Winning film Bringing Down a Dictator.  

It is not rare to read newspaper articles about the challenges facing learners in schools across South Africa: lack of textbooks; questions about teacher commitment; school infrastructure; and how far South African education has really come, since 1994.

But there are beacons of hope that should inspire us all. When Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, and I set out on the journey to create this short-film series and book, How to Fix South Africa’s Schools, our goal was to share positive stories of excellent school leaders who employ innovate solutions to these challenges every day. The project took me to 19 schools across South Africa that are defying the odds. These schools mostly serve learners from low-income communities, yet they consistently produce high Matric pass rates. The question that the project aimed to answer was how. Given the sadness, dysfunction and disappointment that permeate the discussion about education, the stories that I found in schools across the country are astonishing.

Last April, over 120 people gathered at a screening hosted by Center for Education Innovations' South African Hub (Bertha Centre) to hear the stories of the unique schools that I visited. The diverse audience included principals, philanthropists, business people and people from the NGO and government sector. For over two hours, we engaged in critical issues around education. The attendees viewed films of four urban and rural schools in the Free State, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. These videos tell the stories of determined and resilient learners, committed and creative teachers, and principals with clear visions and philosophies that they invoke throughout the school.

Given the number of negative stories, it is critical to have positive examples and models of success. I hope that the strategies and stories in the book will provide examples and serve as models for other under-resourced schools. If they can replicate these innovations in their own schools, and perhaps even partner with other stakeholders in that transformation, then we can see real change.

The work of the Center for Education Innovation (CEI) is aligned with what is taking place in each of these schools. While these principals may not have heard of CEI, they are already innovative in the energy and new ideas that they use in their schools.

To be effectively innovative you really have to understand what the needs are. These principals understand the needs of their learners and their surrounding communities. They are curious; they want to understand what the real issues are and don't shy away from the problems. This is just one of the building blocks of CEI that can be seen in these schools. When you truly understand what you are dealing with then you can be truly innovative and come up with solutions.

There is an incredible amount of innovation and activity in education and CEI is tracking and harnessing innovation to improve education across the board. Their work on building collaboration across institutions is one crucial element in improving schools and it is something that the principals that I met are already trying to do.

It was exciting to have such an inspired group come together to watch stories of what works in education and engage in dialogue about ways to come together to make it better. One of the key lessons learned was that to shift the education system in South Africa we all have to work together- government, donors, NGOs, Schools, parents- the public. CEI is doing critical work to make these connections and develop collaboration and partnership in order to improve education for all children.

Please refer to the CEI website,, to identify innovative programs in your community or field of interest that you would like to contact for opportunities to assist the initiatives. The book, How to Fix South Africa’s Schools, provides a toolkit for practitioners working within schools on how to employ the techniques identified through observing these innovative and successful schools. To learn more about the book and the video series, refer to

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