OVER THE PAST two years, CDE has conducted ground-breaking research into a highly significant development in South African education, namely the growth of low-fee private schools catering for poorer sectors of the population. Private schooling for the poor is a global phenomenon which is gaining massive momentum in developing societies such as India, Pakistan, Chile, Ghana, and Colombia. However, its emergence in South Africa has been insufficiently recognised.
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While public schools were in the majority, low-fee private schools comprised more than 30 per cent of our total sample – far more than the Department of Education’s national estimate for 2008 of 4,3 per cent. In some inner city areas, private schools far outnumbered public schools. Even more surprising was the even split between public and private schools in Butterworth –
a town in a relatively remote rural area – and the presence of private schools in very remote areas in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Almost a quarter of the private schools were unregistered, and therefore technically illegal.
If this trend continues, the low-fee private schooling sector will continue to grow rapidly. Classes in public schools were bigger than those in private schools, and the learner-teacher ratio was also far higher. Private schools had fewer facilities than public schools. As in other countries, they tend to concentrate on the essentials of teaching that will provide the pass
rates they need to attract more learners. Salaries of teachers in private schools were far lower than those in public schools. Also, teachers in public schools tended to be better qualified than those in private schools.
However, levels of absenteeism were far lower in private schools than in public schools. In fact, no teachers were absent at any of the unregistered private schools forming part of our survey.
Fees are higher than in other developing societies. As a result, these schools are not utilised by the poorest of the poor; rather, many parents are working people (police officials, civil servants, and teachers in public schools) who have chosen low-fee private schools as the next best option to the far more expensive former Model C schools for providing their children with
a better education than they would receive in basic public schools.
When the test results in private schools were compared with those of an earlier government test in public schools, (the National Systemic Evaluation of 2005), learners in private schools were more than 12 per cent higher on average than those of learners in public schools.
CDE interviewed and conducted focus groups with parents in Malamulele, Daveyton, and Butterworth. The main reason cited by parents for sending their children to private schools was that they achieved better results than public schools. Many said that the money they paid in fees made private schools more accountable to parents. Classes were smaller, educators were well prepared, and followed up on learners’ performance. The use of English as a medium of
instruction was a vital factor. Teachers were dedicated, and took an interest in the welfare of their learners. By contrast, teachers in public schools were often perceived as poorly trained, unmotivated, and lazy.
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CDE’s research points to the following preliminary conclusions:
• There are more low-fee private schools than is commonly believed, and they occur throughout the country, often in unexpected places.
• They vary in quality, but the fact that they are under pressure to attract customers mean that they regard performance as a key priority, and constantly strive to improve.
• Most of the schools we visited were founded by entrepreneurs who were responding to a clear demand for better schools.
• Many people – including some government officials – regard private schools as
fly-by-night institutions run by unscrupulous operators who are trying to fleece gullible parents. However, rather than being dupes, it appears as if parents are acting rationally to access better schooling for their children. The schools themselves had mostly been in existence for a number of years and had grown ‘taller and fatter’ as their growing reputations made them increasingly popular.
Implications for education policy
Our findings raise important questions about current education policy.
• Should free schooling be a policy priority? The government has committed itself to introducing free schooling in some 60 per cent of public schools in the country. However, our study indicates that paying for schooling plays a significant role in making principals and teachers more accountable to parents.
• Can competition between public and private schools improve the quality of schooling in a given area? If dissatisfied parents have the option of removing their children and enrolling them in low-fee private schools, this could act as a powerful motor for improving the quality of schooling. Principals and teachers at public schools will be under pressure to improve their performance if money followed parents and learners to their choice of school.
• What really leads to improved teacher performance? Teachers at public schools currently enjoy a high level of security, unrelated to their performance. However, our findings indicate that sanctions for poor performance and rewards for achievement play a major role in motivating teachers.
A more competitive environment providing schooling options at all fee levels can only benefit the national quest for improved education. The main aim of future policy reforms should therefore be to build up an enabling environment in which quality schooling is expanded, regardless of whether the providers are public, private, or a combination of both.
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Hidden Assets Executive Summary