Thursday, 7 August 2014

Growth in low-fee private schools undermines our system of rights

Privatisation of schooling in South Africa is on the up - and it’s a worrying trend. Private or independent schools were always part of the landscape; around 1994 there were just over 500 registered schools, but this number has ballooned to more than 5 times that number in 2012.
We are currently in a new phase of growth with the emergence of low-fee private schools in recent times. The new push to provide ‘private education for the poor’ is deeply troubling from a number of angles.
With regard to the policy aspect, the move towards ‘private schools for the poor’ actually threatens rather than strengthens the right to an education. Looking at the trend in developing countries, Keith Lewin of Sussex University has noted that markets cannot deliver rights, paying school fees is inappropriate for households below the poverty line, and that modern social democracies have a social contract with their citizens to promote public goods.
Clearly, once we go the route of private education, we undermine the notion of education as a right; we decrease the force or mass of citizens monitoring for improvement, quality and proper fulfilment of mandates by governments. Those left in the system constitute a smaller number and, in the case of rural areas and poor settlements, the voices that are marginalised by a combination of race and class realities.
There are the psychosocial impacts in the community. If the trend continues (and if this kind of stratification continues to deepen), those parents who cannot send their kids to these schools are left with feelings of guilt. This is an unfair guilt, especially given that education is a right. Monash Univerity’s Joel Windle says that socially disadvantaged families pay a moral price in the form of guilt for not sending their children to private schools, which the processes of marketization elevate to normative status. 
Learners will also be affected. Those who have stayed in public schools, unable to pay the fee, may be left with feelings of inferiority and lower self-esteem which in turn will undermine their sense of future. The further danger is that many learners will wind up being left in schools lacking a good social mix, a problem that plagues so many South African schools on the upper end, but will now effect schools in poor communities too.
There are also concerns around gender. Thirteen organisations, including some from South Africa, have made submissions to the United Nations alleging that school privatisation will have an adverse affect on girls. When cash-strapped parents must choose which child to send to school, they will generally opt to send boys because they believe boys will earn more in the labour market. Among the 13 were Section 27 and Equal Education. For now there are more girls in private schools than boys in South Africa, but the concerned organisations know that in many developing countries more boys are enrolled in schools than girls and are worried about how privatisation will worsen this.
Privatisation in education is a wider issue, but concerned experts locally have their eye firmly on the mushrooming of the low-fee schools on the SA scene. These schools are quickly changing the game.
In these schools, parents pay just over half of what one would normally pay per pupil in a Model C school.
Many parents are drawn to these low-fee private schools because of problems in public education. One of the attractions is the smaller classes and another, perhaps, is the lower teacher absenteeism. Although the quality of education in these schools is uneven and many government officials see them as fly-by-night, parents believe these schools deliver better results.
According to educationist Jane Hofmeyr, there were 70 000 learners in schools which charged fees below R12 000 a year in 2013 in Gauteng.
The Centre for Development and Education (CDE) has generated useful information about the fast rise of these schools. Zooming in to 6 areas – two in Gauteng (Braamfontein and Daveyton), two in Limpopo and two in rural Eastern Cape – its 2010 study found 117 schools in abandoned factories, shacks and former office buildings. In supplementary research, CDE also found some low-fee private primary schools in Diepsloot and Soweto, with private high schools also planned for these areas.
CDE reports that almost a quarter of the private schools are unregistered and therefore technically illegal. The teachers in these schools are generally less qualified than public sector teachers. Some are run by lone entrepreneurs but others are part of chains like the one started by Johannesburg-based MBA graduates who are chuffed about their “sustainable financial model for low-fee private schools in South Africa”.
Although CDE is positive about these developments, in South Africa we (along with educational experts) should worry about the latest phase of ‘buying out’ of the public education system. The issue should not be directed to parents, most of whom are trying to do their best for their children in a difficult situation. But we have to address ourselves to policymakers and to the community as a whole; to exhort them to actively work against this new trend and to instead agitate for improvement in the quality and appeal of public school education.
We should collectively strive for less privatisaton in education, not more. Privatisation cuts across the constitutional commitment to education as a basic right. It runs counter to the Freedom Charter’s notion of education for all. It flies in the face of the South African Schools Act which regards “equity” as a supreme value.

We should take serious note of the uneven quality of privatised schools at grassroots level, as well as the impacts on poor households and poor communities, including the fuelling of intra-community inequality around what should be an equal right for all children. Most of all we should be wary of any undermining of basic rights – of parental actions that  are well meant but have perilous outcomes and that chip away at a key part of South Africa’s rights framework.

 Frank Meintjies

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