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Private schools and the issue of gender discrimination

The privatisation of education exacerbates gender discrimination, according to a brief presented to the United Nations by 13 nongovernmental organisations.

This is because poor parents, faced with the prospect of paying fees for a private school in the context of public education systems in crisis, often can only afford to send one child to school – and boys, not girls, are usually the lucky ones.

South African nongovernmental organisations Section27 and the Equal Education Law Centre were two of the 13 organisations. They submitted a brief as well as a research report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women two weeks ago to inform its discussion on girls’ and women’s right to education.

But low-fee private schools offer high-quality education to communities where there are no public schools or poor quality ones, the Centre for Development and Enterprise said in response to the brief, and in South Africa there are more girls in private schools than boys.

The organisation said in its brief that evidence from a range of countries shows that more boys are enrolled in schools than girls, a problem that is exacerbated in the context of privatisation.

“This is because the monetisation of access to education through user fees places poor parents in the difficult position of having to choose which of their children to send to school, a decision made on the basis of what they believe will be the maximum return on their educational investment – what will the maximum economic benefits be to the family over the long term.”

Abuse of girls ‘rife’ in private schools
The report, titled “Privatization and its Impact on the Right to Education of Women and Girls”, said private schools were not adequately regulated, and therefore became places of potential abuse for girl pupils.

“In many countries, as it has been documented for instance in Morocco, the government lacks the capacity and/or political power to regulate private schools, creating an education jungle in which abuses are frequently unreported,” it said.

“Private schools may not be held accountable when private school officials abuse girls. Anecdotal evidence from South Africa highlights the problem of teachers found guilty of sexual or other abuse moving into the private school sector with relative impunity.”

The organisations called on states to “provide quality, accessible, free public schooling so parents are not forced to choose between their daughters and sons, in line with their international human rights obligations”.

Low-fee schools provide an alternative
Although South Africa still has a relatively small number of low-fee private schools, Dmitri Holtzman, the executive director of the Equal Education Law Centre, said: “There has been a marked increase in enrolment at them over the last decade with the privatisation in education agenda gaining some considerable traction – which includes a number of ‘private school chains’ and corporate investment.

“This shift is fuelled, in part, by the considerable problems in the public education system which has the effect of undermining public confidence in public schools.”

He said the report was relevant to South Africa because “the discriminatory effect on women and girls is felt in already poor and marginalised communities where women and girls have a greater need for equitable access to education as a means of empowerment … the research shows that ‘low-cost’ private schooling tends to have the opposite effect in further marginalising women and girls. ”

Jane Hofmeyr, a senior consultant for education at the Centre for Development and Enterprise, said low-fee schools “provide access, choice and quality education to learners in disadvantaged communities where there are no public schools or poor quality ones”.

“Low-fee independent schools are growing rapidly, especially with development of chains of schools by new players in the sector, such as the Spark schools. They are making a significant contribution to the schooling of disadvantaged learners: for instance, in Gauteng in 2013 there were 70 000 learners in schools which charged fees below R12 000 per annum.”

More girls than boys at low-fee schools
Hofmeyr said data from research commissioned by the basic education department on these schools in Gauteng “does not support the argument about the negative impact on girls”.

She quoted from the research: “In the case of gender equity in Gauteng, female enrolment in independent schools is 50.9%, which is more than the 49.5% female enrolment in public schools.”

Hofmeyr said information provided by the Independent Schools Association of South Africa showed that at 88 low-fee schools where there were a total number of 18 998 pupils, 54.5% of those were girls.

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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