‘Free education like free fruit: rotten’

When it comes to your children’s education, the best things in life are most certainly not free.

This according to Dr Pauline Dixon, a senior lecturer in education and development at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom.

Dixon says free education offered by governments across the world is almost always not up to scratch.

In some cases, she says, it’s downright appalling.

She believes the solution lies with low-fee private schools – a phenomenon she has researched in India, China, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

The Free Market Foundation in Bryanston recently conferred a Luminary Award on Dixon for the work she has done researching the emergence of these schools worldwide.

“If you are offered free fruits at the market you can be sure that they are rotten and if you want fresh produce then you pay for it – the same principle applies for educating your children. If you send them to government schools, especially in Asia and Africa, you are signing them up for poor quality education,” she told City Press.

Her research was informed by three pieces of conventional wisdom:

» Private schools serve the privileged – everyone else, especially the poor, requires public education;

» Free government schools are the only way to increase enrolment for the poor; and

» Private education for the poor – that is, low cost private schools – must be of lower quality.

Dixon and her co-researchers found an abundance of low-fee private schools in Hyderabad and Patna, both urban Indian areas, on the outskirts of Accra in Ghana and across Nigeria.

“The research reveals that private education for the poor forms a majority of the provision for poor families,” she explained.

The team focused on schools charging up to the equivalent of R150 per month.

They also found the assumption that free education was the only way to increase enrolment for the poor was “misplaced”.

In 2003, she and her ­­co-researchers found 76 low-fee private schools with about 12 132 pupils in a slum near Nairobi.

“During the same year government implemented the provisioning of free primary education across the country. Many kids left the private schools and went to government schools. In 2008 we went back again. To our surprise we found that the private schools had increased to 116, enrolling more than 27 000 kids.”

They discovered that after some time in government schools, many children left and returned to the low-fee private schools.

Their reasons? Government schools had too few teachers, classes were jam-packed, there weren’t enough desks and chairs, and there simply wasn’t enough learning material.

Parents told the researchers they were happy teachers in the low-fee private schools were accountable to them, didn’t belong to unions and were a dedicated lot.

The researchers also found pupils in low-fee private schools in India were at least one year ahead of their peers in public schools.

Research in Pakistan revealed low-fee private school pupils were at least two years ahead of their public school counterparts. There are downsides to the increasingly popular system, though: they found that teachers were often not qualified in education and earned very low salaries.

“They have degrees in other areas – but not in education. In most countries they earn a quarter of what the government pays,” Dixon said.

Low-fee private schools are increasingly common in South Africa: research released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise in 2010 found 86 low-fee private schools in six parts of Limpopo, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. These charged between R2 500 and R7 500 per month.


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