Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion and debate about the inequalities in our schooling system. The pandemic has exposed key issues that are necessary to create a conducive environment for teaching and learning such as the technological gap and access to material resources.
But what has been of great concern is these debates have focused on public schools and low-fee independent schools have been ignored.
The government uses a system to equitably distribute financial resources across the school system, with one as the category for “poorest” and five being the “least poor” schools. The debate centres on the divide between schools in the urban areas versus those in rural areas and public ordinary schools and well-established private schools. For example, the follow-up discussion on the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey report makes a comparison of school attendance during lockdown between wealthy schools and those in the public sector, but does not mention low-fee independent schools.
There has been little discussion about the differentiation between independent schools and the incredibly disadvantaged position some low-fee independent schools find themselves in. They are in desperate need of financial support.
The independent schools are made up of traditional elite private schools and the low–fee independent school sector positioned to attract the middle class, who would like to offer their children alternative private education but can not afford the fees at traditional independent schools. The low-fee independent school sector is small, but it plays an important role in ensuring that all children have access to basic education, especially in the provinces and cities where the demand for schools exceeds the government’s supply.
Some of the best performing fee-paying quintile five public schools are, in effect, very similar to some low-fee independent schools. These are strategically placed to compete with the public schools. The differences and inequalities between quintiles one to five schools are, to a great extent, mirrored in the low-fee independent schools.
We have come to know the low-fee — sometimes termed affordable independent schooling sector — to comprise a few elite chains such as Future Nations schools, Curro and Sparks.
These are the schools at the top of the low-fee independent schooling chain. Their fees range from R25 000 to R33 000 a year. They are therefore able to offer some of the most innovative education models, on par with international best practice. This includes experimenting with different curriculum delivery models such as maximum use of technology.
Long before the pandemic they were experimenting with online learning models to supplement traditional teaching. As a result, they have continued with teaching and learning uninterrupted by the pandemic and, as Curro has done, extended financial relief to parents affected by the economic effect of the pandemic. But the same cannot be said about low-fee independent schools who are scrambling to keep doors open.
The low-fee independent schools, which caters for the poorest urban dwellers, are found in old industrial buildings, office blocks and houses in the inner city and townships.
Some of them are run by nongovernmental organisations and must rely on funding. Those that are independently run, still rely heavily on donor funding for laboratories and additional teaching and learning materials. Their classrooms have a 1:37 teacher to learner ratio, while the elite low-fee independent schools have anything from 1:15 to 1:25 teacher to learner ratio.
Unlike in other developing countries, the South African government has acted to ensure that illegal schools mushrooming in back rooms were closed. They are also held to high compliance standards, which weighs quite heavily on the cost of operating the schools.
While children of the “real black middle class” attend schools the “elite chains” in the low-fee independent school sector, these schools admit children from working-class and poor families, many of whom are migrant labourers from rural provinces and non-nationals. Some parents do not necessarily send their children there out of choice or affordability but because for one reason or another they could not secure a space in public schools. This poses a huge challenge to these schools who rely on user fees as the main source of funding. Even with inadequate financial resources, these schools are unable to increase their fees because the majority of their learners are from low-income households and would simply not be able to afford it. The level of financial restrictions experienced in these schools deepens class stratification in our schooling system.
With the current rate of job losses, salary cuts and limited economic activity caused by the pandemic, these schools are hit hard and learners will be left at an even greater disadvantage.
In Gauteng alone, the province with the highest number of low-fee independent schools experienced 660 000 job losses over the second quarter of 2020 and a 42.8% labour absorption rate nationally. The government, which has a constitutional obligation to ensure children have access to education, ought to extend greater support to nonprofit low-fee independent schools during these difficult times.
It should increase its support beyond the subsidy to nonprofit low-fee independent schools that are compliant with the department’s regulatory requirements. This subsidy goes a long way in making up for the financial shortfall these schools experience. Also, it has encouraged compliance with best practices that provide good quality education.
But this amount is minimal. The highest amount that schools are eligible to receive per learner in subsidy is 60% of the provincial average estimate per learner. This has been estimated to be about 1% of the education department’s spend in Gauteng.
While the big players can tap into their reserves and offer relief to parents who struggle to pay school fees, these schools barely manage to make it even if we are not going through a pandemic. They now also have to deal with added costs associated with the Covid compliance protocols.
To ensure that the basic right of every learner to basic education is realised the government and private sector must reach out to these low-fee independent schools.