South Africa: The Bait and Switch of School Privatisation

published 28 February 2017 updated 28 February 2017

By Salim Vally, University of Johannesburg

The Economist’s recent editorial on South Africa’s schooling system recycles tired arguments but more insidiously, its shallow causal narrative feeds into proposals for the privatisation of education. In essence, it is a classic bait-and-switch maneuver applied to schooling.

The severe weaknesses and inequalities in South Africa’s schooling system are incontestable. This though is largely a result of history and context, a complex function of exogenous and endogenous factors, curriculum and pedagogy, poverty and the choices made by a self-serving policy-making and economic elite. Since the apartheid system ended over 22 years ago, access to schooling has increased but quality education for the vast majority of the population remains wanting.

Many schools in South Africa can favorably compare with the best in the world but often quality education is unequally distributed along social class, racial and spatial lines. The Economist editorial as well as other pro-business media outlets that form the ‘echo chamber’ of business philanthropies ignore these fundamental issues in their haste to promote privatization, in all its permutations, as the proffered solution.

For the Economist, we are not getting ‘bang for our buck’. We are told that:

… money is not the reason for the malaise. Few countries spend as much to so little effect. In South Africa public spending on education is 6.4% of GDP; the average share in EU countries is 4.8%. More important than money are a lack of accountability and the abysmal quality of most teachers. Central to both failures is the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU)…

Yet three decades into our democracy, 90% of our public schools do not have libraries, 42% of our schools are overcrowded and there is a huge backlog for buildings, capital expenditure and school maintenance – a result of the apartheid history of racially skewed resource allocation and the choices made in the past twenty years. Consider the view of an OECD report [1] (no less) concerning expenditure on education in South Africa relative to other countries:

Expenditure as a share of GDP was slightly higher than in Mexico and about the same as in Brazil or an average OECD country (World Bank, 2012). These figures are often quoted to make the point that there is no apparent under-funding of the education system. However, this view is inaccurate as the proportion of the population aged 0-14 years in South Africa (29.9% in 2011) is much higher than in OECD countries (e.g. 18.4% in France and 20.1% in the United States). This share is somewhat higher than even some other emerging countries, such as Brazil (25.0%). Even more strikingly, half of the South African population is less than 24 years old, many of whom should be attending an educational institution. Public resources spent per pupil would need to be increased by 30% at the primary level and by 20% at the secondary level to match the OECD average level of resources per pupil.

It is true though that much of the money from our fiscus does not reach the intended beneficiaries and it is not simply a question of ‘throwing money at the problem’ – wastage and corruption must be addressed.  To be sure impropriety, malfeasance and the quality of teachers are a problem but it is sophistry to propose privatization as a solution for these egregious issues and it is rich to blame teachers and teacher unions.

Privatisation increases inequality

The Economist uncritically promotes ‘low-cost’ private schools specifically Spark schools and public-private partnerships known as ‘Collaboration’ schools as the solution to South Africa’s desultory schooling system. Elsewhere I have discussed ‘low-cost’ schools in South Africa and here I briefly outline the move to Collaboration schools.

Late last year, the Western Cape Province approved a public-private-partnership policy inspired by Charter schools in the US and Academies in the UK to be piloted in up to 50 schools over five years. Presently, seven schools in poor communities have been enrolled. Private entities known as operating partners will manage the schools largely funded by donors such as DG Murray Trust, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Zenex Foundation, the Millennium Trust, First Rand Empowerment, ELMA Philanthropies, the Omidyar Network and ARK.

School governing bodies run by these operating partners will make decisions about admission policies, school contracts and the dismissal of teachers instead of the state. Initially at least, private funders are expected to supplement state funding by a huge amount. Given the dismal state of schools in impoverished areas this injection of capital has seduced many school communities.

All teacher unions in South Africa have rejected this model and education social movements such as Equal Education have posed many critical questions including the outsourcing of school governance, admission policies and sustainability.

Collaboration schools are the thin edge of the wedge toward full-scale privatisation and a state that is shirking its responsibility. Steven Klees’ caution is apposite:

Of course, any parent that is able to will avoid public schools where teacher motivation and attendance are poor, class sizes are very large, dropout and repetition rates are high, and learning materials are scarce. This is not evidence of the value of privatisation but of the neoliberal attack on public schooling…a large-scale system of atomistic private schooling is not able to ensure the broad public purposes of schooling…The public sector’s ability to regulate the private sector to achieve socially responsible outcomes is generally weak…despite what may be good intentions and attentive design, privatisation increases the inequality of an already very unequal system. Public subsidies to the poor will not compensate for the advantages of the rich. In practice, privatisation further stratifies the system… Perhaps it is the private interest of the rich that is really driving privatisation.

[1] ]OECD (2013), OECD Economic Surveys: South Africa 2013, OECD Publishing.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eco_surveys-zaf-2013-en

Image ©Bea Uhart

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