Cheap private schools come in for flak

Although critics accuse private schools of perpetuating inequality, Ryna Harrison of Spark Schools says such institutions are filling a gap to provide the schools the country needs. (Jacques Nelles)

Although critics accuse private schools of perpetuating inequality, Ryna Harrison of Spark Schools says such institutions are filling a gap to provide the schools the country needs. (Jacques Nelles)

The emergence of low-cost private schools has had dire consequences for public education, argues a new booklet, Privatisation of Schools: Selling out the right to quality public education for all, from the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, a research unit based at the University of Johannesburg.

“It is not for nothing that many communities have mounted important challenges against the failure of the state to deliver good quality public schooling – even to the highest courts in the land,” the document said.

But, in “a case of ideological wishful thinking”, debate was now tilting in favour of a boom in private, low-fee schools as a vehicle for delivering quality basic education, it said.

“This approach is derived from the idea that the state should have as little as possible to do with the delivery of education and other services which are best left to market mechanisms for their resolution.

“We argue that the proposed ‘market solution’ to our education crisis, even with state regulation, is less a case of a pragmatic attempt at resolving the problem.”

Instead, the state has to heed public clamour for improved quality basic education, says the research unit: “Public education has developed over more than a century to become a core aspect of the work of governments, especially because it is very much a part of their democratising mandate in providing a basic human right to all members of society.

“Nowhere is there an example of a country with high educational outcomes where the provision of basic education has been in private hands.”

The centre’s booklet appears to be a direct response to successive reports by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), advocating for low-fee private schools. Its latest report, titled The Financial Viability of Low-Fee Private Schools in South Africa, said the schools are “growing rapidly” in the country. The CDE estimated that 250?000 pupils attend low-fee independent schools that charge less than R12 000 a year.

“In the context of a struggling public schooling system, the development and expansion of independent schools serving poorer communities is a positive trend that needs greater support and a more enabling policy environment.
It is in South Africa’s interest for low-fee schools to reach even poorer communities,” said the CDE in its study.

Centre for Education Rights and Transformation staffers, including its director, Salim Vally, distributed copies of their booklet at the Jozi Book Fair held at the University of the Witwatersrand two weeks ago. It was also launched at the fair, which was opened by writer Zakes Mda.

Vally told the Mail & Guardian there was “absolutely no doubt that the egregious weaknesses” of the public schooling system were to blame for the mushrooming of low-cost private schools. “One has to acknowledge that we do have a crisis in public education. But this does not mean that there are no public schools that surpass in terms of quality even the private schools.”

Promoting private education was not the answer, Vally said. “It has a detrimental effect on the already perverse state of public schools because it allows those with money to leave the public education system.

“Public schooling ends up catering for the most deprived communities. In other words, there isn’t interest from the policymakers, decision-makers, politicians and the middle class to agitate for changing the public education system.”

This meant the school governing bodies of public schools could no longer draw members with various skills, he pointed out. “Many of us, who are in the middle class now, in our schools in ‘group areas’ there were sons and daughters of teachers, doctors and lawyers. I used to sit next to a son of a doctor [while] my father was working class.

“That influenced community control over schools. It allowed the expertise, resources and interest of the middle class to impact on the way schools were run, and [fostered] accountability.

“But now you find the privatisation of schools removing that level of social interaction.

“Generally, it widens social inequality and stratification among the citizenry,” said Vally.

“Whatever the gains of private education, in a country where there’s such grave inequality it just perpetuates the inequality and people can use money to get out of the system instead of fixing it.”

But Ryan Harrison, cofounder of Spark Schools, maintains the low-fee private schools such as theirs are for the public good. “The government is definitely struggling to keep up with the demand for new schools, especially in provinces like Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there’s huge migration of people.

“Spark comes from the concept that [says] it isn’t good enough standing on the sidelines, just shouting at government: ‘Build more schools, build more schools.’ We, as ordinary citizens, can also get involved and fill that gap where government may not be able to get in time or may have budget constraints.”

Founded by Harrison and Stacey Brewer in 2011, Spark now has primary schools in the Randburg, Midrand, Bramley and Maboneng areas of Gauteng. Its owners are working on expanding to KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

Harrison said that their 2015 school fees of R15 000 a year made them low-cost. “We’re a school for your average South African citizen,” he said.“The privatisation of schools is removing that level of social interaction. Generally, it widens social inequality and stratification among the citizenry”

New teacher union ‘fills gap’ in sector

A new union aiming to champion the labour rights of teachers in private schools has bounced on to the scene.

The labour department registered the Private Schools and Allied Workers Union (Prisawu) just last month. Thabani Ngwabe, the general secretary of the Johannesburg-based union, said, as far as he knew, it is the only union in the country catering specifically for private school teachers. 

“We’re the first union ever to represent teachers in private schools. As you know, the sector has been neglected for a long time,” he said. “We’re qualified teachers, yet we were not represented anywhere.” 

Ngwabe, a teacher at a low-fee independent school in Johannesburg, said his peers have tried to join existing teacher unions. But this apparently proved futile, “because those unions negotiate at the bargaining council. Our employers have no seat on the bargaining council. We negotiate directly with them, on a one-to-one basis.” 

Prisawu was recruiting vigorously in the schools, Ngwabe said. “We’re hoping to grow as much as possible. There are private schools in all provinces of South Africa, all nine, with teachers who are not unionised.” 

In addition to lobbying for better salaries, Prisawu will be demanding fair labour practices in schools. “There are widespread unfair labour practices in the sector. With the intervention of the department of basic education, we can tackle many things in the sector. 

There is widespread corruption, but owners are able to cover it up,” he said. The new union was not allied to any federation “just yet”, Ngwabe said. “We’re hoping to affiliate soon.” – Bongani Nkosi

State ‘a joy to work with’

Ryan Harrison, cofounder of Spark Schools, is full of praise for the government – at least for how it supports low-cost private schools. 

The South African Democratic Teachers Union announced earlier this month that it would “launch and intensify a campaign against the privatisation … of our education”. This would include lobbying the government to close the net on private schools, many of which stand accused of exploiting poor South Africans. 

But Harrison told the Mail & Guardian of the excellent relationship that most private education providers enjoy with the government. 

“The government has over the years become more and more accommodating to private schools and they help private schools,” he said. 

While South Africans in different sectors often complain about the government, “it’s definitely not our experience. We have a fantastic relationship with the government. We find them very supportive.” 

There is no reason either to be suspicious of state rules for the sector: “The regulations that we adhere to, and to which the government holds us accountable, are there to ensure that children are getting quality. They are not there for any other reason,” said Harrison. 

“I think if you deliver on quality, then it’s a fantastic relationship. Only when the government knows you’re jeopardising safety [or] there isn’t quality in the classroom, then you have problems. 

“But generally speaking, we find the government does a fantastic job in the independent school area. The regulation is very supportive of high-quality results.” – Bongani Nkosi

Bongani Nkosi

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