The rise of the low-fee private school

Low-fee independent schools are sprouting up in poor areas largely as a result of the government’s continued failure to provide an adequate number of schools.

This picture emerged strongly when the Mail & Guardian explored these schools in Johannesburg and Orange Farm, south of the city, at a time when the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) is calling for the tightening up of legislation on individual schools, starting with private schools.

The Constitution permits anyone to set up a school. But Sadtu’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, told the M&G this is tantamount to abdication of government responsibility and wants it changed.

“In the legislation it must be very clear that education cannot be sold,” he said. “It’s not a commodity. We’re lobbying legislators because legislators have got a way of abdicating the responsibility we’ve given them when we voted for them and [they]hand it over to business. We’re going to stop that.”

The union has announced plans to “launch and intensify a campaign against the privatisation in and of our education”.

But this campaign might have to tread cautiously with the lowest-fee schools. Charging as little as R40 a month in townships and R350 in the inner city of Johannesburg, the schools are filling a gap where pupils would have no school to attend or go to already overcrowded schools.

These ultra-low-fee schools stand in contrast to wealthier private institutions such as Curro and the Spark Schools.

In its 2013 report on affordable private schools, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, an independent policy research and advocacy organisation, positioned these institutions as low-fee too. But with annual tuition fees of R15 750 in the case of Spark Schools and a range from R32 400 to R53 940 a year at Curro, they are for middle-class children, rather than poor ones.

In Orange Farm three neighbouring secondary schools, Isikhumbuzo, Siyaphambili and Vutomi, all bear structural similarities to any township school. One learns after some digging that they are actually independent of the government and privately owned.

Speaking to the M&G in a small boardroom in Isikhumbuzo Secondary, principal Sibusiso Makhanya says the school has been operating since 1992 because there are too few public schools in the area.

“We’re surviving because there are not enough public schools. Schools in Orange Farm and surrounding areas are overcrowded,” he said. “We’re relieving the government of demands … and much burden.

“At least we manage to have about 40 learners in a class. Public schools have more learners in class. Yes, a manageable class is one with 30 to 35 learners but we’re better than public schools.”

Parents fork out just R40 a month for fees at the school, which caters for pupils from grade eight to grade 12. This year, the school’s pupil enrolment stands at 749. Isikhumbuzo Secondary, like all low-cost independent schools, draws funds to sustain itself from the provincial education department.

For an independent school to be eligible for a government subsidy, however, its matric pass rate must be higher than the provincial average.

Isikhumbuzo achieved a 93.9% matric pass rate in 2014; 46 of its 49 matriculants who sat for the final exam passed. It surpassed Gauteng’s 84.7% pass rate.

Makhanya said the school also provided an opportunity for pupils rejected by public schools: “You know once you’re 19 years old, mainstream schools are reluctant to take you. We have between 300 and 400. That’s when pupils get lost in the system. But here we give them a chance and mentor them.”

Gugulethu Mazola of Izenzo Kungemazwi Community College says independent schools give these children an opportunity to learn. (Jacques Nelles)

At Izenzo Kungemazwi Community College in Joubert Park, inner Johannesburg, administration head Gugulethu Mazola maintains the government needs low-cost independent schools. “I believe the reason why the government registers independent schools [is that] it does not have the capacity on its own to absorb all learners that require education.

“Even with the [number of] government and independent schools in education, we do find that there is need for more schools; there is need for more infrastructure to support education system.

“I believe the system is still not complete even with independent schools and the government working hand in glove.

“The inner city has more private schools than government schools. The government does make an effort to reach out, I wouldn’t lie, but they are not as many compared to the number of learners in the area.”

The school achieved a matric pass of 86% out of 43 pupils who wrote the final paper, outstripping the provincial pass rate. It offers grades one to 12.

Izenzo provides a chance of education to children, many of whom are refugees or migrants, who would otherwise be in overcrowded government schools.

Mazola added: “This school was born out of a principle of assisting the needy in society – those who cannot afford private education, but wish to have their children educated in a private set-up.

“You’d find that there are more learners in a class in a government setup. But here we try to have very limited numbers in a class, about 35 – at most 40.”

Last year Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi admitted to a shortage of schools in the province. More than 4 500 public schools in the country were shut down between 2007 and 2012 and many more have been closed since then.

Phumla Sekhonyane, Gauteng education spokesperson, said there was a high demand for public schooling in the province as a result of rapid in-migration.

“Our records have also shown that the registration of independent schools is growing in new residential areas, for example in estates. The department has registered less than 10 schools in the inner city in Johannesburg in the last two years.

“[But] by and large some independent schools do not cope well with the curriculum. The department found that last year 32 of the 62 worst-performing schools are independent schools, with 24 of these performing under 40%.”

Sadtu’s campaign would entail exposing the government backlog in building of schools, according to Maluleke.

In an instance where an area does not have enough schools, “we need to report the government of South Africa to the United Nations in terms of the right to education. We have got to do that.

“We have got to stand up and say, ‘Here’s a community in Hillbrow, Westville and so forth that does not have a school’. The government has got to provide schools. We must not accept it that there are no schools and therefore see mushrooming of these fly-by-night private schools. The government is supposed to say, ‘Here’s a school, we can transport the children to this particular area’.

“If the government is not going to be responsive to the demand that is there, then we must report them because it is against the declaration on the universal right where it says government has a responsibility.”

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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