Private schools serve public good

The number of independent schools is on the increase.

SEVEN percent of South Africa’s schools are private, catering for less than 5% of the nation’s schoolgoers. They claim, however, to be making a national educational contribution out of proportion to the sector’s size.

The number of independent schools registered with the Department of Education quadrupled in the past six years—from 518 in 1994 to 2 057 in 2000. Following international trends, it is growing because of parents’ perceptions that the state system cannot always satisfy their needs.

Brian Kelly, member of the board of advisers for St Matthew’s, a Catholic school in Soweto, says: “Religious teaching orders set up independent schools in disadvantaged areas many years ago, to give township kids a level of schooling denied them by Bantu education, and they’re still there—Islamic, Catholic, Methodist and Anglican schools, among others. At St Matthew’s, for instance, for the last 30 years we’ve had an average matric pass rate of over 95%.”

The independent sector as a whole can be proud of its 1999 matriculation results, asserts Dr Jane Hofmeyr, national executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa). Of the 70 schools achieving matriculation exemption rates of more than 80%in provincial senior certificate examinations, she says, 31 were private and 39 were public schools. A further 49 private schools writing the Independent Examining Board senior certificate (out of a total of 68 schools) delivered the same high rates. This means that 80 independent schools achieved this level, in contrast with the 39 public schools that represent just 0,7% of the country’s 5 500 secondary schools who entered pupils for matriculation examinations.

“Among the 80 schools, the range of fees is huge,” says Hofmeyr. “Those charging high fees use their resources well, while the poorer schools are working wonders. Independent schools are rich and poor, religious and secular, urban and rural, big and small.”

The secret of schools that succeed, she believes, be they independent or public, lies less in money than in their culture of learning and teaching—a strong work ethic among learners and staff, discipline and commitment. With their emphasis on holistic, value-based education, independent schools “don’t need to be apologetic about the strong moral foundation that they build or what they can contribute to the national good”.

The drop in matriculation exemptions nationwide, from 89 000 in 1994 to 64 000 in 1999, is a blow to the tertiary education sector. It is mirrored in the difference between actual June 1999 enrolments at tertiary education institutions and their projected enrolment total (in the 1998 three-year rolling plans submitted to the Department of Education).

According to the department’s Higher Education Planning Statistics of July 1999, “universities and technikons projected a ... student enrolment total of 630 000 for 1999. The actual enrolment total in June 1999 was only 564 000.”

Aware of the problem, “Minister [of Education Kader] Asmal has declared that the poor quality of public schooling constitutes a national emergency and has called for a national mobilisation, Tirisano [Sotho for ‘working together’], to address it,” says Hofmeyr. Organisations like Isasa want to come on board.

Able to respond flexibly to changing needs, independent schools “led the integration of schooling in South Africa and developed the first multicultural curricula”, Hofmeyr says, and they can continue to innovate on behalf of the education system as a whole.

Their outreach programmes already “reach tens of thousands of pupils, teachers and principals, as well as illiterate adults”, so, through partnerships that share resources and expertise with disadvantaged schools and communities, they can show they mean it when they say they are not competing but co-operating with the public sector in building the country’s educational future.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, May 17, 2000.

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