All it takes is a SPARK

Ryan Harrison and Stacey Brewer and pupils at SPARK, Ferndale

Ryan Harrison and Stacey Brewer and pupils at SPARK, Ferndale

One of the criteria outlined by the selection committee for the FNB Business Innovation Awards 2015 is that the organisation shows developmental impact and the capacity to add substantial economic value. Perhaps it is trite to say that there can be no value attached to education, but what it can offer others and a country is truly invaluable. It is through their innovation in educational transformation that has seen SPARK Schools, a part of the eAdvance Group, claim a space in these inspirational awards.

SPARK Schools is a network of primary schools that are dedicated to the ideals of delivering accessible, high-quality education through affordable, blended learning. There are four schools open in Johannesburg, Gauteng, but the organisation has very clear plans to expand across South Africa, with an end goal of opening no less than 64 schools serving more than 60?000 students.

“We launched our first school in 2013 in Ferndale where we were serving 160 children and now we have four schools with over 1 100 children and we currently employ over 110 staff members,” says Stacey Brewer, co-founder of SPARK Schools. “Now we have plans to open another four schools going into 2016 and then rolling out about four schools a year. From the first year we opened it has been a remarkable success and our children have achieved well above the national average. In fact, our children, in our first year of operation, wrote the grade level assessment above them and surpassed the national average. Our children are performing a year ahead of their peers.”

Founded by Brewer and Ryan Harrison in 2013, SPARK Schools was their solution to the challenges facing the South African educational system. The schools were designed to disrupt the existing system and to introduce innovative learning methodologies to the African continent. The blended learning model sees the students split their time between digital content that adapts to their individual learning capabilities and classroom interaction that’s structured around best practice activities and engagement.

“Our educational model is our innovation. We use a blended learning education model and it is the first of its kind on the African continent,” says Brewer. “We use  a lab rotation, which allows for technology to be integrated into the education model, as opposed to technology supplementing the education model, as is found in traditional schools. This model allows for cost efficiencies, to ensure that we are accessible, and at the same time allows for quality through personalised instruction.”

Throughout the year, the system implemented by the school gathers data on the pupils to help form instruction. This enables the schools to know through the micro-details how children are achieving, allowing for a higher level of tailored instruction if necessary. 

“We were so tired of everyone telling us how terrible education is in South Africa and when we looked at the situation we thought — you can either supplement a broken system, or you can start something from scratch and build it,” says Brewer. “It is our responsibility as citizens of this country to want to make it successful and to stop waiting for someone else to take charge. This is what ignited our desire to start SPARK and the goal is for this to become a blueprint across the country.”

Brewer says they also wanted to show the country how schools could be run financially as well as academically. The use of the blended system allows for a low total cost to educate per child per annum and this, in turn, is a more inclusive system for those who cannot afford high fees.

“The school fees are also designed to make our schools more accessible to South Africans and are, for 2015, R16?000 for the year,” says Brewer. “We’ve been able to grow significantly over a two-year period. Our model is scalable because we’ve never aimed to open just one or two schools. From the get-go, our goal has been to serve as many communities as possible. Our systems and procedures have been built for scale and our educational model allows us to be affordable to all communities and therefore available to more children.”

SPARK Schools benchmark their total cost to educate on what government’s total cost is to educate, to ensure they are providing a model that’s affordable. Certainly the school fees are significantly lower than those charged by the majority of private schools across South Africa, some of which cost upwards of R100?000 per year. Investors include the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund and private South African high net worth individuals.

This educational initiative has been met with plenty of interest and been covered by most of South Africa’s leading media outlets. The responses have been primarily positive, with many recognising the value of having an educational system that is both affordable and academically proficient. 

The four schools are in Ferndale, Cresta, Maboneng and Bramley, with another school opening in Midrand in 2016. 

“Innovation, whether it is a product or a service, should deliver greater value to someone’s life,” says Brewer. “Innovation should allow for greater opportunities, for people to lead a better life.” 

The long list of awards SPARK Schools has garnered is testament to its capabilities. In 2013 SPARK Schools was invited to attend the Skoll World Forum to discuss blended learning and, in the same year, it was recognised by the Accenture Innovation Index Awards.  The system has been met with more than critical approval; the parent testimonials are also overwhelmingly positive, as parents celebrate their children flourishing in a fresh, exciting educational environment.

“Excellent education is more than just academic achievement, it’s also about the holistic child and character development,” says Brewer. “We emphasise the core values of service, persistence, achievement, responsibility and kindness across our classrooms, learning labs, playgrounds and community. For us, it is important that our children and staff uphold these values so they are set on a strong path of learning and personal success that will see them well into their futures.”

The innovation that has captured the attention of the FNB Business Innovation Awards is apparent across every facet of the SPARK’s Schools business model. From the introduction of a new and dynamic blended learning system to the focus on people, costs and achievements, this is an education model designed to transform an industry and bring about positive change. This is without compromising on academics, as the programme is both rigorous and demanding, but it also doesn’t compromise on learning: it just adds joy and engagement. 

“We are unique and we are growing,” concludes Brewer. “We will continue to inspire our children, guide our parents and support our employees on every step of the learning journey. It’s only the beginning of our adventure, and innovation is part and parcel of our business model and our plans going forward.”