Private education transforms itself

John Lobban of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa. (Supplied)

John Lobban of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa. (Supplied)

According to the department of basic education’s School Realities 2013 statistical information, published in September 2013, there are 1 584 independent schools with 513 804 learners. 

However, John Lobban of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) believes that this is an under count of independent schools and attributes the growth of independent schools to parental choice and the needs and demands of society.  Isasa represents over 700 low—mid— and high-fee schools with around 160 000 pupils and 12 500 teachers. 

What is the biggest problem Isasa schools face and how do they differ from the problems faced by government schools? Independent schools face a consistent challenge of sustainability, particularly in weak economic climates. Like in all fee-paying schools, the rate of debt collection has risen since 2008.

Independent schools are also subject to much red tape when registering with provincial education departments and have to comply with legislation that applies to private companies. Schools that qualify for government subsidies do not always receive payments on time or the correct amounts they are due and this places great pressure on their sustainability. 

Traditionally, private schools are viewed as for the elite only. Is this still the case in South Africa? In the early 1990s, the sector consisted of predominantly white, traditional high-fee schools, today official figures show that the majority of learners are black (73%) and most schools are either mid-fee, or low-fee ones that serve disadvantaged communities. Our member schools’ fees range from nil to R209 000 (for a full-boarding school).

It is often overlooked that some public schools charge higher fees than some independent schools. While some independent schools do have wealthier communities as their target markets, they by no means form the majority and, in general, independent schools cater for the full cross section of South African society.

 Isasa represents a diversity of schools across the income spectrum. How do these schools differ in their approaches to school fees? Close to 30% of our schools receive government subsidies (meaning that they charge two-and-a-half times less than what the government spends on a child at a public school). 

The independent school sector relieves the government of a financial burden: it is estimated that if the government had to accommodate all the pupils from the independent schools, it would cost close to R1,5-billion.

In answer to the specific question, the only real difference is the amount that is required. In almost all independent schools, various options are offered to parents in terms of payment: an annual payment, per term payment or a monthly payment, with a sliding scale of increasing total costs.

What advice does Isasa give its members around discipline in schools? As in public schools, independent schools need to have a detailed code of conduct that is compliant with legislation and includes due process for dealing with any serious misdemeanours. Isasa does provide a generic code of conduct which it encourages all schools to use, once it has been customised to suit their specific circumstances. Isasa also provides workshops for its members to educate them in the best ways of dealing with disciplinary issues and a telephonic service for specific advice.

There has been much talk around the “crisis in basic education”. What role does Isasa see itself playing in helping to resolve the situation? We believe that there are good schools in the public system and some bad quality schools in the independent school sector. We have a mathematics and English programme where we place sponsored learners with mathematics potential in Isasa schools to ensure they receive an education that allows them to achieve their potential. 

There are currently some 270 such learners in grades 10, 11 and 12 in our schools. We also place teacher interns at some of our host member schools. Here they receive excellent teacher training and mentoring. Simultaneously they study for their bachelor of education degrees or postgraduate certificates in education through Unisa. 

The funding is organised through a private public partnership with the department of basic education and other donors. After they graduate they are placed in public and independent schools. We believe that this programme is contributing to the public good of education.

Isasa schools as a whole are involved in numerous outreach programmes which include an exceptionally large number of disadvantaged learners within the country.

Parents who are interested in enrolling their children in an independent school should: 

  • Ask the school for its Education Management Information System (EMIS) number to check whether it is registered with the provincial education department and thus legal.
  • Find out if the school has a provisional accreditation number from Umalusi, the statutory body that quality assures independent schools.
  • Check if its teachers are registered with the South African Council for Educators.
  • Ask if the school belongs to an independent schools association, such as Isasa.
  • In the case of a high school, ask for its school-leaving examination results for the last few years, especially the percentage of BD (university entrance) passes.
  • In the case of a primary school, ask for the results of the state Annual National Assessments or other benchmarking tests.
  • Check if a pre-primary school is registered with the provincial departments of health and social welfare
  • Ask a pre-primary school about its particular educational approach and into which primary schools its children are accepted.

Teacher training bursaries up for grabs

The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa’s (Isasa’s) Mathematics and English Programme is offering bursaries to 50 students to study to become mathematics or science teachers.

In 2008 Isasa initiated the programme to contribute to teacher training in the country. In recent years, Isasa’s partnership with the Department of Basic Education and Investec has resulted in its expansion.

The programme is donor-funded and recruits black students who desire, and have the potential, to be mathematics or science teachers. After a rigorous selection process, the best students are awarded bursaries to pursue either a four-year bachelor of education degree or a one-year postgraduate certificate in education through Unisa.  

On selection, they are placed as intern teachers at Isasa’s participating host schools (which include government schools), where they receive mentoring and exposure to excellent teaching practices. On completion of their qualifications graduates are placed in public schools.

The bursary covers Unisa fees and textbooks. Bursaries are open to school leavers with a matric exemption (Bachelor Pass) and 60% or more in English and either mathematics or science. Tertiary students with maths or science credits, and graduates with maths or science majors are eligible to apply. Applicants must be younger than 26.

Queries may be directed to or call 011 648 1331.

This article has been paid for by the Mail & Gaurdian’s advertisers. The contents of the supplement was developed in conjunction with and signed off by the Mail & Gaurdian’s advertisers.