South Africans have to pay dearly for quality education

The struggle parents face when it comes to finding good schooling for their children in South Africa, much like in the UAE, often comes down to money.

Private education used to be the preserve of South Africa’s wealthy elite but crumbling state schools have forced parents to seek alternatives for their children.

As a result even people on lower incomes are using private schools, scraping together their earnings to meet the cost.

“This is mostly because public schooling is dysfunctional and education is still seen as the way out of poverty,” says Ruksana Osman, a professor and the dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

A large portion of the country’s state run schools are regarded as dysfunctional – that is, unable to meet international benchmarks – particularly in science and mathematics.

Ms Osman says results from international standardised tests show that up to 80 per cent of South African schools are not able to impart the necessary skills to students.

As it is, many who start school become discouraged and drop out, especially if they begin failing grades once in high school; only half of the children who begin the education system that starts when they are approximately six years old in grade one will eventually secure a high school diploma, government figures show.

When it comes to international yardsticks the figures are even more dismal. A World Economic Forum survey this year asked business leaders to rank the quality of education in 140 countries. Of these South Africa was placed second to last.

This is in spite of the government funnelling money into the sector. This year 205 billion rand (Dh55.9bn) was allocated for schooling, about a fifth of South Africa’s national budget and the single largest item of expenditure.

This is a greater percentage of its GDP than many developed nations such as Switzerland and Japan, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

It is not to say the country has made no progress. Literacy is now almost 100 per cent and most children have access to some schooling, unlike the apartheid era where fewer than half of all blacks in the country could read.

Under the apartheid system white children received a quality schooling virtually for free, while their black counterparts had only “Bantu education”, a keystone of the apartheid regime.

However the school system has failed to produce graduates who are work and university ready.

As a result more than a third of the adult population is unemployed. Among people aged 15 to 34, two-thirds, or 5 million, are unable to find work, according to Statistics South Africa, the official state data agency.

With such dismal figures from the state schooling sector, it is little surprise that parents are seeking private education.

In August, Curro Schools, the country’s largest private sector educator, reported a 59 per cent increase in earnings.

“While it was originally assumed that the market would be saturated with 200 independent schools by 2020, it is now clear that the demand is far greater than the supply,” says the Curro chief executive Chris van der Merwe.

As of now, Curro has 41,693 pupils in 110 schools on 47 campuses around the country. This year it plans to build nine new campuses to the value of 950 million rand, Mr van der Merwe says.

“We are nevertheless mindful of sustainable portability and have over the years developed an optimal rate for constructing new schools and campuses, being six campuses or between 15 to 18 schools per year.”

Curro has a pupil-teacher ratio of about 15 to one, compared with government classrooms that can squeeze in up to 45 children for lessons.

But parents pay a steep premium compared to state schools, most of which are free, apart from some located in wealthier middle class areas that can levy a small fee. A Grade 1 slot at Curro’s Durbanville campus in Cape Town, a solid middle-class neighbourhood, will cost 43,450 rand a year. For a Grade 12 pupil, the final year of high school the cost is around 60,000 a year. By way of contrast, a first-year medical student at the prestigious University of Cape Town will pay 64,000 rand annual tuition.

Compared to some of the top private schools, however, those fees are a relative bargain. Hilton College, South Africa’s most expensive private school, charges 236,000 rand a year.

The disparity in fees has inevitably led to some debate about the risk of different types of education widening the gap between affluent and poor South Africans.

“Rather than being solely elitist, independent schools cater for a range, from the lower middle classes all the way to the most affluent households,” says Lebogang Montjane, the executive director of the Independent Schools of South Africa Association (Isasa), a body with which most private educators are registered.

Mr Montjane says an emerging trend in private education across Africa and also Asia and the Middle East, is to be accessible to emerging middle-class families, not just the rich.

There are even schools that offer free tuition, drawing finance from charitable foundations or religious-based institutions. Currently there are about 1,700 non-state schools in South Africa.

The majority of these institutions have to be affordable while aiming for the best outcome for enrolled children – to secure a place in university.

To ensure academic standards are met, Isasa monitors member schools and evaluates them every six years. The association also provides assistance with developing a curriculum and the setting of examinations.

“Our contribution is the quality of education within independent schools which provides a disproportionate contribution of students who go on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at university,” says Mr Montjane.

This trend towards private education in South Africa will only grow, especially as the middle class moves into gated estates that have come to dominate many of the country’s wealthier neighbourhoods.

These estates provide a closed, guarded residential area self-contained with shops, recreational facilities and schools.

Some are planned to resemble mini-cities, and their residents will want all services available within their walls.

“Private schooling is now moving into housing estates,” Ms Osman says.

“So whole estates are serviced by their own school, own hospital, own shopping centres – causing enclaves which could affect social cohesion.”

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