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Government schools are failing so let’s give parents a choice in how and by whom schools are run. We’ll find, they’ll pay, says Eustace Davie.
Johannesburg - Government schooling has turned into a nightmare. Examination results get steadily worse, literacy rates decline, there is a lack of interest in mathematics and science, larger education budgets don’t improve matters, and increasing numbers of pupils leave school as soon as they are able to escape. Political parties make election promises about fixing the schools, but nothing done so far has improved matters.
Given South Africa’s mass unemployment numbers, the future must look rather grim for pupils approaching the end of their schooling. Instead of a bright future with a choice of potential jobs, they face the prospect of joining the ranks of the estimated 7.9 million unemployed.
School, for some pupils, has become a way-station between classes in which they have little interest and a life of unemployment. The bleakness of the situation must be difficult for them to deal with, especially if they conclude that what they are learning at school will be of little value in helping them to find a job, let alone a rewarding career.
The situation is not helped by teachers taking extended sick leave or deserting the profession because they can’t face having to deal with aggressive and unhappy pupils who spend their time disrupting classes and preventing others from learning.
The solution to all the schooling problems is simple: All governments have to do is to let go so that private providers can take over the provision of education and skills training. People with knowledge and skills should be encouraged to run training courses to pass on their accumulated knowledge and skills to young people. Governments can purchase schooling and training for young people; they do not have to provide it. Teachers in government schools can become entrepreneurs, rent their schools and provide teaching services in competition with other schools.
Laws and regulations that prohibit or inhibit such developments should be repealed, including the requirements for approval and registration of training courses.
Problems will melt away as competing entrepreneurs offer a range of learning options from which young people and their parents can choose. One of the most important characteristics of a new education market like this would be that consumers would determine the nature of the product. Families would not only determine which institutions would teach their children, but also, what they teach and how they teach.
Learning institutions would set the terms and conditions that would apply during training. Families would not control training but they would influence the activities of the institutions by choosing to buy or not buy their services. Just as their buying decisions influence the performance of the shops from which they buy food and clothing. Private education institutions are less inclined to tolerate disruptive behaviour, including training schools that specialise in teaching difficult pupils.
Such institutions, in order to attract pupils, would ensure that they created peaceful and stimulating environments.
Private firms, because there is no limit to their numbers or the variety of their skills, knowledge and abilities, have a flexibility governments can never have. They can specialise and cater for large or small niche markets whereas governments are compelled to standardise. Why should education be treated differently to other services or commodities? Imagine what supermarkets would be like if they were run by government officials who have the power to tell their private supermarket competitors what they can sell and how they must present their goods to customers. The officials would decide what kind of food we must eat and how it should be provided, whether by a government or private supermarket. After all, government dictates what and how children must be taught at schools.
Young people all have special educational and learning needs. They are all different. Their capabilities, characteristics, ambitions and interests differ markedly. Standardised schooling, curricula, teaching methods and learning environments cannot provide the variety that is essential to cater for their real needs. Pupils are squashed into a standardised schooling box designed for the mythical average pupil. Non-average pupils, the potential majority, are compelled to suffer the consequences.
Contrary to general expectation, according to the EG West Centre at the UK’s Newcastle University, poor parents in difficult circumstances use their meagre resources to buy better alternatives for their children from schools that charge fees, rather than have their children attend government schools that charge no fee at all. The centre says private schools for the poor have emerged in huge numbers in some of the most impoverished slums and villages in Africa. “They cater for a majority of poor children and outperform government schools for a fraction of the cost.”
They found large numbers of small private schools in low-income areas in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and India.
Dr Pauline Dixon, the director of research at the EG West Centre, will be visiting South Africa as a guest of the FMF (Free Market Foundation) next month. She will speak on her new book, International Aid and Private Schools for the Poor.
In the absence of current constraints, a private market in education and skills transfers has the potential to develop the individual talents of every child under conditions of freedom and choice, the kind that existed in the US and UK in the 19th century, before the widespread institution of compulsory government schooling and suffocating controls over all schooling.
Given the necessary freedom, the education and skills development of young people will become a worldwide competitive entrepreneurial industry, vying for the business of young customers and their parents and using the remarkable technical aids and materials already available and the even better aids and materials that will become available in a liberated education market.
It has been convincingly demonstrated in this country that it is not compulsion that impels people to study. Black South Africans were not subjected to compulsory schooling laws until relatively recently, yet many voluntarily educated and capable black people, many of whom attended private missionary schools, hold down jobs in every sphere of the economy and society, including top positions in the government.
Opening up education to low-cost private schools run by educational entrepreneurs will not provide an overnight solution to this country’s schooling problems but will set South Africa on a path to educational recovery.
Given the choice, many parents will pay fees to private schools to ensure a better quality education and learning environment for their children. Dramatic change in the way young South Africans are educated is necessary to give current and future generations a chance in life.
* Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of Unchain the Child: Abolish Compulsory Schooling Laws.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.