Low-fee schools on the rise

Parents face harder decisions about where to get the best education for their children. (David Harrison, MG)

Parents face harder decisions about where to get the best education for their children. (David Harrison, MG)

When the public sector fails, the private sector often steps in to pick up the slack. As such, entrepreneurs who respond creatively to an opportunity in the market are changing the face of private schooling in South Africa. The growing phenomenon of low-fee private schools means they are no longer reserved for the elite.

Whether or not the "South African schooling system fails to provide major sections of society with adequate education", as Professor Stefan Schirmer said in a 2010 Centre for Development and Enterprise report, Hidden Assets, one thing is sure: the private sector is providing more options for schooling than before.

However, the quality of this alternate education varies in often unpredictable ways. Parents face harder decisions about where to get the best education for their children.

The latest education statistics report, released by the department of basic education in February, showed that there were more than 12.2-million pupils in ordinary schools (those that do not cater for special needs) in 2010. Of these, almost 500 000 pupils were enrolled in independent, or private, schools. However, experts suspect that more than 4% of South African schoolgoers use private education.

Schirmer's report mapped every school in six chosen sample areas in rural and urban regions of Gauteng, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The aim was to get a realistic picture of low-income private schooling.

The report found that "low-fee private schools comprised more than 30% of our total sample –  far more than the department of education's national estimate".

In the 15 years preceding the research, the report found, more private schools were established in the research areas than public ones. "Registrations accelerated rapidly and consistently throughout this period," said Schirmer. "If this trend continues, the low-fee private schooling sector will continue to grow rapidly."

Other developing countries share this trend. Research by Professor James Tooley from the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom found that up to 70% of schooling in India, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan and parts of Latin America was private.

A World Bank report showed that, worldwide, enrolment in private primary schools increased by 58%, whereas enrolment in public primary schools increased by only 10%, said Schirmer.

"The minority of South Africans are being schooled at fantastic private schools and former model C government schools. The rest are being educated in the disaster of our education system," said Ross Hill, principal of Leap 4, a private school in Diepsloot.

"Our education system is ranked lower than poorer countries in Africa and the world," he said. South Africa ranked 133 out of 142 countries for "quality of the educational system" in the 2011-2012 World Competitiveness Report released by the World Economic Forum.

Even though government spending on education has roughly doubled since 1994, "we have inherited a poor education system that does not educate black people and it has become worse despite money being thrown at the problem", said Hill. The weak link, he said, was "implementation". "We have a great curriculum, but we do not know how to run schools or train teachers."

Low-fee schools are trying to address the need for better training and school management, but juggle between improving the educational offering and keeping fees affordable.

Almost a quarter of the schools researched by Schirmer were not registered, making them technically illegal and unable to access government funding.

A variety of funding models exist for registered independent schools. Fred Boltman, founder of Phoenix College in Braamfontein and chairperson of an alliance of black independent schools, said there are five funding options.

A school can either not be subsidised, or it can receive a 15% subsidy, a 25% subsidy, a 40% subsidy or a 60% subsidy, depending on how high or low its fees are. However, a school's subsidy level is capped depending on the area it operates in. "The highest subsidy an inner-city school can get is 40%," said Boltman. "To get 60% you would need to move into a township."

Break-even point
Phoenix College relies on a 40% government subsidy and charges about R500 a month in school fees. However, the 40% only covers a small portion of the school's costs.

"An independent school is required to cover 100% of its own rental costs, 100% of its own teachers' salaries and 100% of its own administration costs. The government only provides 40% of the pupils' teaching material and support costs," he said. In contrast, government schools are covered 100% in every category.

The college relies on government funds to keep its fees low, but it is strictly a marriage of convenience. "Relying on the government for payment is terrible," said Boltman.

At times, funds have arrived up to five months late. "We have managed to adapt by spending all our money on salaries and holding back on buying." The school also benefits from a discounted rental.

"I believe that Phoenix has the recipe for success," said Boltman. It has had a 100% matric pass rate since 2008 and almost half of its 2011 matriculants qualified for tertiary schooling.

With about 720 pupils spanning grade R to matric enrolled this year, Phoenix College has gone from making a loss to being "at about break-even point".

A school that receives a government subsidy is required to register as a non-profit organisation. The only way to run a school as a profitable business is to be completely free from government assistance –  a difficult task to balance with keeping fees low.

Quality education
"Relying on government subsidies is not self-sustaining and it is not a scaleable solution," said Stacey Brewer, chief executive of education group eAdvance. Brewer and Ryan Harrison, two MBA graduates from the Gordon Institute of Business Science, have introduced a "unique business structure" that allows schools to provide quality education and be completely self-sustaining. They have adopted a model from San José, California, for their South African-based group.

The secret, said Brewer, was a unique use of technology. The educational model is based on 75% teacher-child interaction and 25% computer-child interaction. The teacher introduces a concept and then allows the child to practice in a learning laboratory where he or she will get real-time feedback.

The teaching model will save costs by having one less classroom and one less teacher a year. School fees will be R12000 a year. It will cost the company R11700 to educate a pupil, leaving a tiny profit of R300 a pupil a year. However, this cost will be self-sustained. "We do not have donations, government subsidies, nothing," said Brewer.

The model ensures that a child understands a basic concept before building on it. "A kid must get one plus one right before they proceed," she said.

Children who struggle with a concept will be provided with one-on-one tutoring. Conversely, "you could have a child learning their three plus three ahead of the rest of their class", said Harrison, the group's director of technology.  

eAdvance will open its first private primary school in January next year. The school will be the first in a chain of Spark Schools –  primary schools under the eAdvance umbrella.

The trade-offs
Most low-fee private schools keep costs down by maintaining a strong focus on education and spending less on sports and extra murals. The report found that fewer facilities existed at these schools than their government counterparts. According to Boltman, this is the main reason why some pupils leave Phoenix for former model C schools.

However, private school pupils score higher academically than government school pupils in all subjects (see diagram).

One reason for the private schools' better performance could be the smaller classes and a lower student-to-teacher ratio. "We have a maximum of 30 students in every class, usually less," said Maam Sebata, isiZulu teacher at Phoenix.

Phoenix principal Mthulisi Moyo believes the tireless work of the teachers is a major factor.  

Although teachers could earn significantly higher salaries at government schools, "thinking of leaving would be like leaving a scar on our bodies", said Phoenix maths teacher Felix Moyo. "The philosophy of Phoenix has bonded us; we have developed the kind of loyalty which really does not depend much on monetary issues."

'Third tier' of education shows encouraging results

 When the Mail & Guardian arrived at Leap 4 in Diepsloot, we were led past brightly painted walls to meet our guides in the busy staff room, grade 10 pupils Ilana Ngwenya and Vusi Mkhandawirne. "Are you the head girl?" we asked Ilana. "No. We are all leaders here," she said. "Shall we begin our tour?"

The Diepsloot school is one of six Leap schools across the country. It charges parents a total of R500 a year to cover uniform costs and a community service programme. "The fees of about R35 000 per child are covered in full by infrastructure development group Aveng, which initiated this school with us," said principal Ross Hill. The school, which opened last year, has 95 pupils and is the only one in the group that relies on a sole sponsor.

The school strives to instil a culture of leadership and respect in its pupils. "We work in a socioemotional space before an academic space," said teacher James Malope.  

"In this school, you get the chance to fulfil your dreams," said Ilana.

The school emphasises maths, science and English learning.

"Our maths results are about six times better than a township school," said Hill. "Most of our pupils that have gone on to tertiary education are still there - they have not dropped out."

Relying on private and corporate sponsorship, Leap "pays better than public schools", said Malope.

Hill believes teachers' salaries are similar to government salaries. However, the teaching staff is often filled by the Leap future leaders programme, which encourages former students to study to become teachers and allows them on-the-job training. The programme is one of the ways Leap encourages students to "give back to the community".

Hill admitted that the schools' reliance on funding meant the model was not sustainable. However, "we are working with the government and other high-performing schools to create a third tier of schooling.

"You are essentially given the money that the government would spend on the child if the child remained in government care, and run the school with the education department's criteria and curriculum and final exams, but you have the autonomy to select your own staff." The proviso for this arrangement would be for the school to "keep excellent results".

"Essentially, we are looking at a private and public collaboration," he said.



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