Bridging Research and Policy in South African Education: An Interview with Janeli Kotzé

In an interview with Yue-Yi Hwa, RISE Fellow Janeli Kotzé shares her perspective on working in government as a researcher, COVID-19, and effective collaboration.



Image of Janeli Kotzé

Janeli Kotzé

RISE Fellows

Department of Basic Education, Government of South Africa

Image of Yue-Yi Hwa

Yue-Yi Hwa

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

"It’s all true, but it’s not all the truth." This snappy one-liner, coined by Colombia’s former Deputy Education Minister, is a useful mantra for those of us seeking to use insights from data or research findings to inform policy decisions. In other words, policy design and implementation involve many legitimate priorities and diverse lived experiences that extend far beyond any spreadsheet or journal article, however compelling the truths in these data sources may be.

At the RISE directorate, we are conscious of the varied perspectives, narratives, and sources of information that policymakers use, so we’re keen to learn from those on the ground. One group of people whom we are especially interested in engaging with—and learning from—are ‘pracademics’, i.e. practitioner-academics who translate research into policy and practice.

In this blog, we hear from Janeli Kotzé, who is Deputy Director of Research Coordination, Monitoring, and Evaluation at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education (DBE). Janeli is one of the five RISE Fellows, a non-resident group of researchers who study RISE-related topics in a range of educational contexts. She recently participated in the RISE Online Presentation Series session on teacher training and coaching, presenting findings from a study comparing the effects of virtual and in-person coaching of South African teachers.

Janeli shares her perspective on the realities of working in government as a researcher, the effects of COVID-19 on her work, and how researchers can collaborate more effectively with policy practitioners.

As Deputy Director of Research Coordination, Monitoring, and Evaluation at the DBE, what are your main responsibilities?

We focus on a couple of areas, including research into new innovative ways in which to support improved service delivery, sector performance monitoring to support sector planning, and conducting evaluations of key government programmes to support improved implementation. In 2019, the South African government decided to include early childhood development as one of the priority areas under the Ministry of Basic Education, and I have been providing strategic support for the inclusion of this sector in Basic Education.

Previously, you were based at the University of Stellenbosch. Why did you decide to move from academia to government?

I realised that I wanted to do research that could be taken up by government. To be able to do this better, I needed to understand the various processes in which government operates, including the processes around decision making, funding allocations, accountability, and implementation. I also wanted to understand the complexities and constraints that education officials face in adopting and implementing new research or new programmes, so that I can tailor my research outcomes to suit the needs of government.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Unfortunately, about 70 percent of my time is spent in meetings, whereas the rest of the time is split between research, project management, reporting, and the administration that comes with any bureaucracy. Although the time spent on meetings is often frustrating, I have realised that dialogue is often the best way in which to manage change or influence mindsets. Education officials are often ex-teachers or school principals, who have a very good grip on the conditions in a classroom and curriculum matters. However, a change management process is often required when discussing proposed systemic changes based on research outcomes, or explaining the need to evaluate the effectiveness of programmes.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

I focussed specifically on the impact of the pandemic on the early childhood development sector. In South Africa, we currently do not have any data or information systems for this sector, which has created an incredible challenge in terms of monitoring the readiness of the sector to re-open or to provide support to the programmes which were hardest-hit by the lack of ability to generate an income. Furthermore, similar to many other researchers, we had a couple of data collection activities planned for this year which are dependent on in-person visits. The uncertainty on when we will be able to safely collect this data has meant that we have been in limbo regarding postponing these activities.

Amid the COVID crisis, what are some of the policy questions confronting you and your colleagues for which education research has offered applicable insights?

At first, the main question that we grappled with was how to reopen schools and early childhood development programmes safely. On the one hand, this meant looking at research on best practice in terms of feasible and practical Standard Operating Procedures, while on the other hand, it meant using research to influence the public perception on the real risks facing children and the importance of them returning to school.

Planning ahead, I think the two main questions that we are all grappling with are (1) how much learning have we lost (and are we perhaps still losing) and (2) how are we going to make up for this lost learning from 2021 onwards? In South Africa, the COVID response has also meant the repurposing of a lot of funds and the Education budget has seen dramatic cuts. We therefore realise that our answer to the second question will also be determined by severe fiscal constraints. Pre-COVID, we had already focussed our research on providing in-service support to teachers to better teach the foundational reading skills. Looking forward, we will need to build on the lessons learnt through this to support teachers with catching-up on the foundational skills that learners lost out on in 2020. The concepts coming from the research on Teaching at the Right Level are also particularly useful, but we will need to see how best to integrate these concepts in the South African context.

Which types of research outputs—whether papers, blogs, webinars, tweets, or otherwise—have been most useful for accessing research amid this urgent and uncertain crisis?

This was rather a chaotic time, during which the turn-around time for new findings to be shared was very tight. In some instances, the situation on the ground changed so quickly, that research findings from a month ago does not seem to be relevant to the situation today. Blogs and tweets were therefore often the most appropriate for the current situation, purely because of the flexibility to share information quicker. This, however, can come at the risk of less rigour, so while very useful, this can be dangerous if not read with a certain level of scepticism.

At RISE, we’re eager to engage with pracademics (i.e. practitioner-academics). Given your experience as a pracademic, what is one thing that you wish academic researchers knew about system-level education policy?

Education officials often face pressure from their political principals to be seen as ‘doing something about the situation’. The Minister wants to be able to report to the public on the actions her Department has taken to address the current issues which are facing the sector. This often leads to officials taking on projects for the sake of the project, rather than for the sake of the outcome. Understanding this has helped me to structure the policy recommendations emanating from my research differently. Making them more concrete and tangible makes them easier for government officials to adopt, because this allows them to report on something they are doing.

For example, in our research on coaching, the obvious recommendation was that we should implement on-site coaching to support teachers to teach home language reading better. This recommendation, however, is too broad. We therefore structured our recommendations as an implementation plan that included doing a finance review to help provincial departments of education to budget for coaches, developing a coaching course so that we can train more coaches, and developing reading norms in all the official languages so that teachers will know what is expected of their learners at the different developmental stages.

What is one thing that you wish policymakers knew about academic research?

I wish that policymakers would start asking the question of whether their project/work is actually leading to changed learning outcomes. Given this pressure to be able to report on ‘what we are doing’, education officials often assume that their effort will lead to change, without evaluating whether this is truly the case.

How can researchers collaborate more effectively with education policy practitioners?

When conducting research, we generally engage education officials on operational issues for fieldwork, such as accessing schools or complying with their regulations or conditions. Once we have concluded our research, we revive our engagements with the sole purpose of explaining our findings and recommendations. Education officials often perceive this as academics telling them how to do their job, or as academics telling them to take on a heavier workload. I find that it often helps to take the longer, relational route of engaging the programme officials from the inception phase. This may sometimes be frustrating, but it helps with officials taking ownership of the findings at the end of the study. Through this collaboration process, there is also implicit transfer of research skills, which will hopefully help create a deeper appreciation for research in general.

We look forward to engaging further with Janeli in her capacity as a RISE Fellow and hope to hear more about her work in South Africa’s Department of Basic Education. For more information from Janeli, you can follow her on Twitter and connect via LinkedIn.

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RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.