Private schools are ‘kind of cool’


By Thandisizwe Mgudlwa

A new and fast growth in the South African private education schools market is certainly taking place.

And a recent Mail and Guardian report attests to this.

In the report it is confirmed that SA is experiencing a significant rise in affordable independent learning facilities.

And noted is that when the public sector fails to deliver the goods, then the private sector often steps in to pick up the slack.

As such, entrepreneurs who respond creatively to an opportunity in the market are changing the face of private schooling in SA.

Further revealed is that the growing phenomenon of low-fee private schools means they are no longer reserved for the elite.

Whether or not the “South African schooling system fails to provide major sections of society with adequate education”, as Professor Stefan Schirmer said in a 2010 Centre for Development and Enterprise report, Hidden Assets, one thing is sure: the private sector is providing more options for schooling than before.

However, the M&G report also finds, is that the quality of this alternate education varies in often unpredictable ways. Parents face harder decisions about where to get the best education for their children.

And the latest education statistics report, released by the department of basic education in February 2012, showed that there were more than 12.2-million pupils in ordinary schools (those that do not cater for special needs) in 2010. Of these, almost 500 000 pupils were enrolled in independent, or private, schools. However, experts suspect that more than 4% of South African school-goers use private education.

Schirmer’s report had mapped every school in six chosen sample areas in rural and urban regions of Gauteng, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape provinces. It is understood that its aim was to get a realistic picture of low-income private schooling.

The report further found that “low-fee private schools comprised more than 30% of our total sample – far more than the department of education’s national estimate”.

Essentially, in the 15 years preceding the research, the report found, more private schools were established in the research areas than public ones. “Registrations accelerated rapidly and consistently throughout this period,” said Schirmer. “If this trend continues, the low-fee private schooling sector will continue to grow rapidly.”

In addition, the developing countries share this trend as well as Research by Professor James Tooley from the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom found that up to 70% of schooling in India, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan and parts of Latin America was private.

Looking on the so-called disaster, a World Bank report showed that, worldwide, enrollment in private primary schools increased by 58%, whereas enrollment in public primary schools increased by only 10%, said Schirmer.

Ross Hill, principal of Leap 4, a private school in Diepsloot, comments that: “The minority of South Africans are being schooled at fantastic private schools and former model C government schools. The rest are being educated in the disaster of our education system.” “Our education system is ranked lower than poorer countries in Africa and the world,” he said.

Also disclosed is that South Africa ranked 133 out of 142 countries for “quality of the educational system” in the 2011-2012 World Competitiveness Report released by the World Economic Forum.

Even though government spending on education has roughly doubled since 1994, “we have inherited a poor education system that does not educate black people and it has become worse despite money being thrown at the problem”, said Hill. The weak link, he said, was “implementation”. “We have a great curriculum, but we do not know how to run schools or train teachers.”

Low-fee schools are trying to address the need for better training and school management, but juggle between improving the educational offering and keeping fees affordable, the study shows.

Almost a quarter of the schools researched by Schirmer were not registered, making them technically illegal and unable to access government funding.

A variety of funding models exist for registered independent schools.
Fred Boltman, founder of Phoenix College in Braamfontein and chairperson of an alliance of black independent schools, said there are five funding options.

A school can either not be subsidised, or it can receive a 15% subsidy, a 25% subsidy, a 40% subsidy or a 60% subsidy, depending on how high or low its fees are. However, a school’s subsidy level is capped depending on the area it operates in. “The highest subsidy an inner-city school can get is 40%,” said Boltman. “To get 60% you would need to move into a township.”

Furthermore, the study from M&G added that Phoenix College relies on a 40% government subsidy and charges about R500 a month in school fees. However, the 40% only covers a small portion of the school’s costs.

“An independent school is required to cover 100% of its own rental costs, 100% of its own teachers’ salaries and 100% of its own administration costs. The government only provides 40% of the pupils’ teaching material and support costs,” he said.

In contrast, government schools are covered 100% in every category. The college relies on government funds to keep its fees low, but it is strictly a marriage of convenience. “Relying on the government for payment is terrible,” said Boltman.

At times, funds have arrived up to five months late. “We have managed to adapt by spending all our money on salaries and holding back on buying.” The school also benefits from a discounted rental.

“I believe that Phoenix has the recipe for success,” said Boltman.

It has had a 100% matric pass rate since 2008 and almost half of its 2011 matriculants qualified for tertiary schooling.

With about 720 pupils spanning grade R to matric enrolled this year, Phoenix College has gone from making a loss to being “at about break-even point”.

A school that receives a government subsidy is required to register as a non-profit organisation. The only way to run a school as a profitable business is to be completely free from government assistance – a difficult task to balance with keeping fees low.

And on quality education, the report quoted Stacey Brewer, chief executive of education group eAdvance as saying: “Relying on government subsidies is not self-sustaining and it is not a scaleable solution.”

Brewer and Ryan Harrison, two MBA graduates from the Gordon Institute of Business Science, have introduced a “unique business structure” that allows schools to provide quality education and be completely self-sustaining. They have adopted a model from San José, California, for their South African-based group.

The secret, said Brewer, was a unique use of technology. The educational model is based on 75% teacher-child interaction and 25% computer-child interaction. The teacher introduces a concept and then allows the child to practice in a learning laboratory where he or she will get real-time feedback.

The teaching model will save costs by having one less classroom and one less teacher a year. School fees will be R12000 a year.

It will cost the company R11700 to educate a pupil, leaving a tiny profit of R300 a pupil a year. However, this cost will be self-sustained. “We do not have donations, government subsidies, nothing,” said Brewer.

The model ensures that a child understands a basic concept before building on it. “A kid must get one plus one right before they proceed,” she said.

Children who struggle with a concept will be provided with one-on-one tutoring. Conversely, “you could have a child learning their three plus three ahead of the rest of their class”, said Harrison, the group’s director of technology.

eAdvance will open its first private primary school in January next year. The school will be the first in a chain of Spark Schools – primary schools under the eAdvance umbrella.

Another important area of focus is that most low-fee private schools keep costs down by maintaining a strong focus on education and spending less on sports and extra murals.

The report found that fewer facilities existed at these schools than their government counterparts.

According to Boltman, this is the main reason why some pupils leave Phoenix for former model C schools.

However, private school pupils score higher academically than government school pupils in all subjects, the study confirms.

One reason for the private schools’ better performance could be the smaller classes and a lower student-to-teacher ratio. “We have a maximum of 30 students in every class, usually less,” said Maam Sebata, an isiZulu teacher at Phoenix.

Phoenix principal Mthulisi Moyo believes the tireless work of the teachers is a major factor.
Although teachers could earn significantly higher salaries at government schools, “thinking of leaving would be like leaving a scar on our bodies”, said Phoenix maths teacher Felix Moyo.

“The philosophy of Phoenix has bonded us; we have developed the kind of loyalty which really does not depend much on monetary issues.”

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