/ 22 February 2019

Are elite former white schools ‘the best’?

A common criticism levelled against elite former white schools is their lack of transformation
A common criticism levelled against elite former white schools is their lack of transformation (John McCann)


Elite former “whites-only” schools hold a special place in the imagination of South Africans. With grand architecture and sweeping grounds, they routinely achieve the top matric results and offer pupils an incredible variety of opportunities and experiences. Institutions such as Westerford High School and the South African College High School have come to define what educational excellence looks like in the South African context and for many wealthy white families they are the only options on the table.

But are these schools in their current form actually good for South Africa or the children? As an educational researcher, spending extensive periods of time in schools and classrooms in Cape Town, I’ve come to question their value.

A common criticism levelled against elite former white schools is their lack of transformation. Exorbitant fees and narrow catchment areas mean that their student bodies remain mostly white and wealthy.

Even less racially representative are their teaching staff. Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School, for example, hired its first black class teacher last year, 27 years after it admitted black pupils.

The racial homogeneity of these schools raises questions of exclusion and social injustice. For those who are socially minded, it is concerning that historically marginalised groups still cannot have access to the staggering resources that these schools unjustly accumulated under apartheid.

For those who believe that public schools have a duty not only to their pupils but also to the broader society, it is uncomfortable to watch the construction of multimillion-rand music centres when most children have a constitutionally unacceptable level of education.

Yet I believe that those who simply want the best for their children should also pay attention. As grade 7s in South Africa apply for high school this month, let’s interrogate the belief that elite former white schools hold a monopoly on educational excellence.

To begin with, the spending patterns of these schools may be motivated less by your child’s development and more by the desire to maintain the institution’s reputation.

As Westerford alumnus Tess Peacock has argued, the elite Cape Town southern suburb schools are in a regressive competition to “out-infrastructure” each other in a constant attempt to be “better”. She refers to the competition as regressive, because it makes these institutions more and more elite, more expensive and more exclusive as a result.

The spending choices are in response to a captive market of middle-class (mostly white) parents, who participate in a problematic and factually limited discourse of what it means for a school to be “excellent”. The cost gets passed down to the parents and the performance anxiety gets passed on to the pupils, all in an attempt to maintain the school’s elite status. As one pupil told me: “It’s not enough to be my best; our school tells us we must be the best.”

But are these schools “the best”? In terms of raw test scores, yes. But not in terms of value for money or value added. In fact, given the resources these schools have, their pupils should be performing much better than they are. For example, the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found that South Africa’s independent schools and the fee-paying schools performed less well in science and maths than the average school in New Zealand (where fewer than 5% of pupils pay school fees), as well as the average school in Italy, Sweden, Singapore, Malta, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea or Taiwan.

A parent in any of these countries gets much more educational bang for their buck than you do. Former white schools may be charging you elitist fees but they don’t give your children elite learning outcomes.

Nonetheless, some might argue, these schools do produce the best matric results even if they’re not internationally competitive. Well, yes and no. The pupils at these schools achieve top matric results, but it’s not clear whether that’s because of the school. It is more likely explained by the wealth of their parents.

A report released by the London School of Economics in 2017 found that there is a strong and direct link between household income and children’s learning outcomes. The weight of the evidence suggested that money in itself matters for children’s outcomes; poorer children have worse outcomes because they are poor and not just because of other factors that are associated with low income.

It is therefore not surprising that the 10 top-performing schools in South Africa cater to pupils whose parents can afford at least R30 000 a year. These schools admit children who, by virtue of their wealth, are primed to succeed and then we congratulate them when their pupils do succeed. The fact is that, if these same children went to less elite schools, they would probably still matriculate very well; the grades of middle-class pupils are surprisingly resilient.

Perhaps we need a new definition of “best” school. Instead of simply looking at the top matric results, parents should seek out schools that actually give educational value to pupils, helping them to achieve more than their backgrounds would predict.

Schools such as Livingstone High School in Claremont, which charges R7 640 a year yet achieves a 99.3% matric pass rate, and Claremont High School, which charges R8 700 a year and in 2017 ranked eighth in the Western Cape, outperform the South African College High School. In my opinion, these schools are more impressive than a Hershel or a Bishops; they do more with less and are better value for money. Yet they attract almost no white pupils.

This is not an attack on former white schools, but rather a critical engagement with what constitutes educational excellence in a country like South Africa. Most importantly, however, it’s a call to white parents to exercise more imagination when choosing a school.

Our schools, both white and black, cry out for class and race diversity. This month, as grade 8 applications start to roll in, I encourage you to consider that educational excellence for your child might be found outside an elite group of former whites-only schools.

Natasha Robinson is an education consultant and a PhD candidate at Oxford University