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South Africa: The Size and Shape of Private Education

published 19 August 2016 updated 19 August 2016

By Salim Vally, University of Johannesburg

Twenty two years since the first democratic elections in South Africa, the combined weight of apartheid’s legacy exacerbated by neo-liberal policies over the past two decades has meant that the promise of a quality public education system remains a chimera. While a mélange of new official policies on every conceivable aspect of education exists and racially-based laws have been removed from the statutes, the education system as a whole reflects and reproduces the wider inequalities in society. While schools of excellent quality exist, intractable problems remain for the vast majority of public schools attended by the poor and the working class. In this atmosphere, calls for the privatisation of schools in all their permutations are receiving greater resonance.

Advocates of right-wing reform stridently demand a variety of responses ranging from outright privatization of education and the withdrawal of the state, to various versions of market-friendly policies and public-private-partnerships. The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) is a key evangelizing think tank promoting market fundamentalism in education and other social sectors in South Africa. The likes of Pauline Dixon, Michael Barber, the John Templeton Foundation and James Tooley are their main sources of inspiration. The shrill voices emanating from right wing think tanks and the predatory maneuvering by market players can best be summed up by adapting Gramsci's famous aphorism, "The pessimism of the diagnosis and the optimism of the prescription”. In the face of the many weaknesses that confront the South African public education system, the privatization of education in its different disguises has seduced many policy and decision makers.

Of the 25 000 schools in South Africa with an enrollment of over 12 million learners, private schools relative to many countries remains numerically few. Official statistics though are inconsistent and contested, most often setting private schools at roughly 6% of all schools although many observers believe that they are much higher. All agree though that that the private sector in education continues to grow exponentially since the first democratic elections in 1994. The sector is far from homogenous and includes unregistered “fly-by-night” schools, non-profit religious schools and for-profit schools.

Over the past few years the growth of what is called ‘low-cost’ private schools have grown unmistakably and the recent entry of the UK-based transnational behemoth, Pearson, in the ‘low-cost, technology driven’ schooling market will increase this trend. South Africa’s premier business daily gushed (BDlive, 22/05/2014), “ The Pearson pitch seems well-timed as the private education sector has become a darling of the JSE [Johannesburg Stock Exchange] with well-established Advtech and fast-growing Curro Holdings attracting strong market ratings.”

South Africa has seen a mushrooming of private schools. Curro Holdings for example boasts that it will reach 80 schools by 2020 with a student enrolment of 90 000. The World Bank’s IFC participated in the development of the Curro group and in 2010 approved a 10 year loan of $9. 4 million to support Curro’s strategic expansion. Ominously, the Government Employees Pension Fund via their asset manager the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) together with the corporate, Old Mutual Life Assurance Company has invested R440 million in Curro Holdings. The latter’s revenue increased by 91% to R309 million and that of its earnings before interest and taxes increased by 178% to R51 million for the period ending 30 June 2013. There are other South African companies with huge profits in the education sector including Pioneer Academies founded by Chimezi Chijioke a former head of McKinsey’s African education network.

Old Mutual and the Government Employees Pension Fund have formed the R1.2 billion Schools and Education Investment Impact Fund. The latter fund has invested in the following ‘low cost schools’: Prestige Schools, Royal Schools, BASA Educational Institute Trust and Meridian Schools, a subsidiary of Curro Holdings.

Spark Schools are managed by the company eAdvance, established in 2012. In 2014, Pearson invested R28million in Sparks Schools through its Affordable Learning Fund (PALF). Spark Schools has ambitions to run 64 schools in the next decade and to launch schools in Rwanda, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and India.

In 2015 Spark Schools charged fees of about R15 750 (or roughly $1000) a year excluding the non-refundable registration fee and other levies. In a country where 40% of the working age population is unemployed (using the more accurate broader definition of unemployment) and where 78% of the adult working population earns a personal monthly income of R2000, attending Spark Schools, one of a chain deemed ‘low cost’, is not an option for the vast majority of the population. It’s clear that the ‘low cost’ schools are attempting to find a market amongst the growing black middle class.

Policy makers and analysts in countries like South Africa are wont to borrow policies and their prescriptions largely from Europe and North America, regardless of the vastly differing histories, contexts and circumstances under which such policies were developed or the approaches to development that these signified. In effect although many of the borrowed policies have been shown to be ineffective in the very countries of their provenance, they continue to be purveyed as policies and 'best practice' useful to development elsewhere. Such policy borrowing is fostered, regrettably, not only through the work of 'expert' consultants (often from developed economies) but also by 'native' researchers who have little regard for the critical literature.

Neoliberal globalization's narrow focus on business and the market system continues to undermine and distort the purposes of good quality public education. It has the potential to negate the struggles for a fair, just and humane society, substituting these for unaccountable and avaricious global autocracies based on the power of money. We simply cannot abandon the public mandate of the state if we are to have any hope of achieving the goal of a democratic and humane society, free of corruption, accountable public services promoting decent employment and socially useful work, the provision of 'public goods' and the development of a genuinely democratic society for all citizens. And for public education to work we need motivated, professional and happy educators, competent managers and state officials, adequate resources and infrastructure, a conducive community environment, addressing the social context and consequences of poverty and proper enforcement of standards. For many communities in South Africa there is a realization that the struggle against apartheid education is not over – this time against class apartheid.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.