The changing face of independent schools

Independent schools are not the exclusive enclave of the wealthy, but cater to many different communities, writes Jane Hofmeyer in a recent issue of Independent Education magazine

Students protesting about subsidies to independent schools, sensationalist billboards about “white flight to independent schools”, a comparison of the costs of upmarket public and independent schools in the Sunday Times - all these are underpinned by a mistaken notion of a wealthy, homogeneous, self-centred independent school sector.

Since the mid-1990s a quiet revolution has been occurring in the independent school sector and its makeup and outlook have changed significantly. Recent research by Unesco that focused on Kwazulu-Natal shows this very clearly.
The findings of the research, to which the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa) contributed, are important for everyone to understand.

As a result of new education policies, different demand and supply factors, and the growth of the black middle class and informal sector, independent schools no longer fall into a single, easily recognisable category. They are rich and poor, religious and secular, urban and rural, big and small, traditional and alternative. However, some broad distinctions can be made between:

Religious schools that serve a specific denomination such as Anglican, Catholic, charismatic Christian, Jewish or Muslim;

For-profit schools serving either affluent communities or the growing market of aspiring black youth and adults; and

Non-profit community schools established to meet an education need.

Many of the well-established, religious schools offer world-class, value-based education within a traditional framework, but also include sophisticated information technologies in keeping with the knowledge society of the 21st century.

The for-profit schools market their ability to produce high academic results and are generally competitive in their approach to education. Some, like Damelin, have been around for a long time and have traditionally focused on preparing pupils for the school-leaving examination. Others, like the Crawford schools, are relative newcomers and target mainly high-income clients.

The for-profit category also contains a fast-growing number of unregistered independent schools, often called “fly-by-nights” because of the poor education they provide and the way they tend to appear and disappear without warning. The ‘fly-by-nights’ give the entire independent sector a bad name. Unfortunately, their growth has outstripped the capacity of the provincial education departments to monitor and close them down.

Among the growing number of community schools is a particular type of independent school that is a by-product of apartheid. It serves relatively poor black communities and is generally found in more rural provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Northern Province.

Typically a group of African parents persuade one or two white teachers to start a pre-school, arguing that if their children well-taught in English, they will be able to enter a good, ex-white primary school. As each year passes the parents persuade the teachers to remain for another year. Once the children reach primary school level, under pressure from more African parents, a formal school is established in rented or donated premises. Such schools exist in disused warehouses and offices, large old houses, farm buildings and churches. They are established for altruistic purposes as non-profit organisations to undo the ravages of Bantu education.

Another development is the emergence of Afrikaans-medium independent schools. Since the mid-1990s, some Afrikaans communities have become increasingly worried that Afrikaans will die out under pressure from English-medium instruction and have started independent Afrikaans-medium schools. There are already more than 10 of these schools in Isasa alone and the number is growing, albeit slowly, every year.

A common stereotype of independent schools is that they are elitist. However, today most independent schools do not serve affluent communities. In fact, in deep rural areas, informal settlements or inner cities, independent schools are often the only schools available to poor black students. Consequently they can charge only low fees and are very dependent on the state subsidy to survive. When the provincial subsidies are unexpectedly low or are paid out late, such schools face closure.

An interesting finding of the Unesco research is that the traditional differences between public and independent schools have begun to blur. Some wealthy, ex-white public schools in the suburbs are more like expensive independent schools. In fact, those public schools that charge high fees of R8 000 to R10 000 a year, and still have half of their teachers paid by the province, arguably have the most discretionary income of any group of schools. The first schools in South Africa to install Astroturf playing fields - at about R3 million each - were, in almost every case, wealthy public schools.

Similarly, the poorest independent schools in informal settlements, inner cities and deep rural areas share all the problems of poor public schools, without any of the “benefits”. Their maximum state subsidy is limited to 60 per cent of what a similar public school would receive and, as many of these schools rely almost entirely on the subsidy to survive, their financial position is precarious.

In the new South Africa, class and geography, rather than race, are becoming the main dividing lines between independent schools - and to a lesser extent between public schools. The danger is that the children of unemployed and rural families may become the “underclass” of South African education. Their families are trapped in lives of grinding poverty and can exercise no choice over the education available to their children.

Choice is a key component of democracy, and independent schools add value to democracy by widening educational choice in a highly diverse society. Increasingly they provide education to a wide range of social classes and in many cases they extend access to learners who otherwise would have no education. Consequently, they decrease the financial burden on provincial budgets. They also run significant outreach programmes for disadvantaged schools and communities.

With their strong value-base, independent schools increase social capital and strengthen civil society, and their capacity and flexibility enable them to innovate rapidly. They can serve the national interest by piloting new trends in education, such as learnerships for teachers or whole school evaluation, thereby lessening the risk for public schooling.

Independent education plays a complementary role to that of public education, and with their commitment, resources and expertise, independent schools can be a valuable partner of government, as the Partnerships Conference last year showed.

Taken together, these research findings signal significant changes in independent schooling. With the increased demand in black as well as white communities, the independent sector has grown fourfold since 1994 to constitute more than 2000 schools. The concomitant diversification of the sector defies neat categorisation: the range of independent schools is vast, as is their quality. Independent schools come in all three flavours - excellent, mediocre and poor - as do public schools. This makes quality assurance in the sector a critical issue, and ISASA membership becomes all the more important as a brand that stands for high standards of educational and ethical practice.

In addition to the public benefits that flow from independent schools, the sector has developed into a nationally-oriented, public-spirited one that was not anticipated by commentators or government in the early 1990s. Independent schools have responded positively to Minister Asmal’s call for national mobilisation in education, by actively developing partnerships with teacher organisations, government and business in the national interest.

- The Teacher/M&G Media, Johannesburg, July 2001.

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