Closing private schools 'won't solve problems in education'

The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) believes Cosatu’s proposal to do away with private schools is based on misconceptions about the private-school sector.

The trade union federation’s policy document, released this week, says that there is an urgent need to “eliminate the three-tiered education system which features private institutions, model-C schools and ordinary public schools and to redistribute resources toward ordinary public schools in working-class and poor communities”.

However, Isasa spokesperson Simon Lee told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that it is a common misconception that the private-school sector services a predominantly wealthy, elite and mainly white demographic.

“We understand there might be frustration about the inequalities in education, but there seems to be some confusion. The most recent government figures show that 73% of learners in the private-school sector are black children, attending low-fee schools,” he said.

“The elite high-fee schools only make up 14% of the sector, so if you do away with independent schools it is mostly poor schools that will be affected.”

Recent statistics from the Department of Education show that there are nearly 26 000 schools in South Africa, while Isasa estimates there are between 1 400 and 2 000 independent schools, although it is hard to get an accurate figure due to the difficulty in keeping track of private institutions.

‘More harm than good’
Cosatu’s proposal calls for an equitable, levelled playing field for all pupils by closing private schools and redirecting resources to public schools. But Lee suggests that closing private schools will do more harm than good.

“First, the Constitution guarantees that every individual has the right to establish private educational institutions at their own expense. So shutting down private schools would require a change to the Constitution,” he said.

“Private schools service roughly 450 000 children. Where is the money going to come from to fit them in to the public-school system?

“Removing private schools would not solve the problems in education. It would most likely put more strain on the state as it would have to fund these learners in public schools,” he said.

“High-fee private schools—which make up just 14% of the sector—get no subsidies from the state. And the low- and medium-fees schools that do get state funding are only given a maximum of 60% of what the state spends on a pupil in public schooling. In reality, most get less than that, so if anything, the sector saves the country money.”

According to Lee, private schools have an important role to play in the South African education landscape as they can be a “test bed for new ideas and to trial changes to the curriculum”.

“We make up only 5% of the total number of schools in South Africa, but if you look at the number of graduates from our schools who enrol in universities in the maths and science disciplines, it’s clear to see that we are punching well above our weight.”

‘No threat to private schools’
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has also come out in support of independent private schools.

On Wednesday her spokesperson, Hope Mokgatlhe, told Business Day that the minister believes independent schools have a right to exist, protected in the South African Schools Act.

“The minister believes public- and independent-sector schools can work together harmoniously, and has assured Isasa at its AGM over the weekend that its right to existence is not under threat,” she said.

Isasa suggested that it would be more helpful to education if there was a way for independent schools and public schools to work together.

“No doubt there are some dysfunctional schools in the public sector and we feel that we could make a contribution to improving the overall level of education if we work together. We are blessed with great teachers at private schools, so I think a more useful proposal would include a way to use these resources to help out state schools,” said Lee.

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