Private School Enrollments Growing in South Africa as Poor Enroll

In South Africa, poor parents are increasingly sending their children to private schools, with the education department estimating that the numbers enrolled in private schools rose by 76% from 2000 to 2010 — a time when many state schools closed.

Spark Schools, a network of private primary schools located in Johannesburg, South Africa, opened a primary school in Ferndale, a suburb of Johannesburg in January 2013. The school is using a blended learning model, which is still new in South Africa. Spark charges $1,300 a year and plans to open a total of 64 in the next decade, with second school to be opened as early next year. Spark’s growth reflects a preference among South African parents for their children to be educated privately, reports The Economist.

South Africa is a middle-income country, but ranks at the bottom in education — 146th out of 148 countries by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum. Education takes a fifth of the state’s budget and teachers are relatively well paid, but standards are low and results are dismal.

Only four in ten pupils that start school stick it out to pass the matric, the school-leavers’ exam, though the pass mark is as low as 30%, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) said. Just 12% achieve high enough marks to get into university. And only 11% get a mark of 40% or above in maths.

Due to poor standards of public education, more poor parents are willing to pay to send their children to private schools. With growing enrollment of poor children, schools are trying to keep fees low to attract and keep them.

Vuleka is a chain of seven primary and nursery schools in Johannesburg. The school charges fees of about 14,000 rand a year and its results in reading and maths are well above average. The school is paying its teachers a bit less than the going rate to help keep fees down.

“Teachers who want to teach know they will be supported here,” said Melanie Sharland, the executive head. Even then Vuleka must raise 2,400 rand per pupil to cover teaching costs. A fifth of pupils get help with fees. Many are orphans. So yet more money from donors is needed.

Vuleka also receives a subsidy of 25% of the 11,000 rand. Private schools with low fees are eligible for a subsidy of up to 60%, but Bernstein said the proportion should be at least 90%, as in Pakistan and Chile.

However, many schools, including Spark, are unwilling to rely on payments from the state, which often arrive late or not at all. Spark runs on a strict for-profit basis. The school’s founders, Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison, believe that a model that relies on donations cannot work on a national scale.

The ruling African National Congress, whose leaders once embraced Marxism, is unlikely to celebrate the rise of private schools for the poor. But nowadays it will be loth to inveigh against them.