How much real extra quality do private schools offer?

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Private schools are a law unto themselves. They don’t even try to espouse the spirit of the new democracy, writes Pinky Khoabane.

 

The debate over private versus public education rouses emotions, more so given this country’s history.

The private school education system is a rip-off.

The fees at private schools, including the “corporate” ones owned by JSE-listed companies, are among the highest in the world, ranging from R40 000 to as much as R160 000 a year for a Grade 12 pupil who is a boarder.

The fees don’t include a non-refundable deposit which can be as much as R17 000, uniform, the frequent demands for the extra R10 or R20 for one thing or another including civvies day – when students are allowed to wear ordinary clothes – and the endless fund-raising events. For these schools to have the audacity to still raise more funds above their fees is daylight robbery.

The belief in the education sector and in the minds of the general public is that private schooling represents quality education.

We are always bombarded with the benefits of what are, frankly, ridiculously exorbitant fees: smaller class sizes, quality teachers, a variety of extramural activities (which often come with extra fees) and numerous other “benefits”.

Parents, many of whom make major financial sacrifices, enroll their children at these schools with hope.

But do the results, often the Matric results which private schools crow about as an indicator of success and ultimately use as justification for the fees, reflect the quality that emanates from the school or is it as a result of the extra lessons that parents have to pay to supplement classroom learning?

South Africa has a burgeoning business that provides extra lessons, be it in science, English, maths, biology or other subjects. The services range from private tutors, who charge about R350 an hour, to the well-established franchises which charge up to R2 000 a month for 16-18 hours of extra lessons.

The number of students from private schools who attend these institutions is shocking, given the much-touted quality they supposedly produce.

A tutor told me her institution was extremely busy and had a long waiting list of students attempting to enrol. She confirmed that all its clients were in the upper end of the economic scale and attended private schools.

There are agencies, much like employment agencies, that offer tutors. They will be taking a big chunk of the R350 that is charged.

An institution that offers primarily maths and science was inundated with students during the recent holiday and interestingly, the lessons are taught by a computer-based teacher, and the human tutors simply monitor the performance of the students and mark the tests.

Some of the students at this institution told me they preferred and learnt more from the digital lessons because they cut out the human teachers who often belittled and judged them if they didn’t understand an aspect of the subject.

While parents sacrifice to pay R9 000 a month for their Grade 11 pupils in the confidence that the school will deliver the education, they soon discover that they have to get involved in the financial burden of extra lessons, from study guides to tuition outside the school.

It is heartbreaking to see the number of children who leave townships in the early hours to make it to private schools, either by public transport or by hired taxis. Some of the children wake up as early as 4am in time for the taxi which makes rounds to the different homes before taking them to school.

While their counterparts are catching up on the much-needed sleep, they are already on the road, meandering through townships picking up other students who, more often than not, go to different schools in the leafy suburbs.

It’s a missed school day for those who don’t emerge from their homes when the taxi driver hoots to indicate that he’s outside. Many are left behind simply because they are a few minutes late or miss weeks of schooling if they attend a school whose holiday programme is different from the majority of passengers in the taxi.

Private schools love the notion of being different for the sake of nothing else. Each decides, willy-nilly, when it closes and opens and some don’t even adhere to a routine holiday programme; it may change each year, depending on the owner’s whims.

Consultation is non-existent in private schools. The owner makes decisions and the parents and students must simply toe the line – and they sadly often do – for fear of reprisals.

Students who use public transport are automatically excluded from participating in the much-vaunted extramural activities, which often start either very early or are late in the afternoons, and some, such as drama rehearsals, go on until late in the evenings. There is absolutely no consideration for the children who live far away or use public transport.

Private schools are a law unto themselves. They don’t even try to espouse the spirit of the new democracy in which the equality of languages and cultures are promoted.

In a country in which the majority is African, parents often have to beg to have an African language introduced at the school, while French, Portuguese, Italian are the norm.

Employees are generally white, with the Africans being the Zulu teacher when it is offered and the rest are cleaners.

Am I angry? You bet I’m angry. In part, at owners of private schools who are willing to take money from all sectors of the community while disregarding the environment and situation from which their fellow African citizens come. But my biggest anger is levelled at the ruling party, the ANC.

It is a travesty that the education of our children continues to be determined along economic lines. We all know the ripple effects of denying our children quality education.

The ANC has described the next phase of South Africa’s democracy as one that “calls for bold and decisive steps to place the economy on a qualitatively different path that eliminates poverty and unemployment”, and indeed it points to education as one of its priority areas.

The vision of an economic revolution in the next phase of democracy will come to nothing if the majority remain trapped in inferior education.

 

*Khoabane is an author, writer and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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