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The moral price of private schooling

Time of article published Aug 25, 2014

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Frank Meintjies says South Africa needs to guard against the undermining of the fundamental right to education.

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 had ballooned to more than five times that number in 2012.

We are in a new phase of growth with the emergence of low-fee private schools. 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 threatens rather than strengthens the right to an education.

Looking at the trend in developing countries, Keith Lewin of Sussex University has noted that 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 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 University’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 marketisation elevate to normative status.

Pupils will also be affected.

Those who have stayed in public schools, unable to pay the fees, may be left with feelings of inferiority and lower self-esteem which in turn will undermine their sense of future. A further danger is that many pupils will wind up being left at schools lacking a good social mix, a problem that plagues so many South African schools at the upper end, but will now affect schools in poor communities too.

There are also concerns around gender. Thirteen organisations, including some from South Africa, have made submissions to the UN alleging that school privatisation will have an adverse effect 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 Section27 and Equal Education. For now there are more girls at private schools than boys in South Africa, but the concerned organisations know that in many developing countries more boys are enrolled at schools than girls and they are worried that privatisation will worsen this.

Concerned local experts have their eye on the mushrooming of the low-fee schools on the South African scene. These schools are quickly changing the game.

At these schools, parents pay just over half of what one would normally pay per pupil at 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 at these schools is uneven and many officials see them as fly-by-night institutions, parents believe these schools deliver better results.

According to educationist Jane Hofmeyr, there were 70 000 pupils at schools which charged fees below R12 000 a year in 2013 in Gauteng.

The Centre for Development and Education has generated useful information about the fast rise of these schools. Zooming in on six 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.

The organisation also found some low-fee private primary schools in Diepsloot and Soweto, with private high schools also planned for these areas.

The organisation reports that almost a quarter of the private schools are unregistered and therefore technically illegal. The teachers are generally less qualified than public sector teachers. Some schools are run by lone entrepreneurs, but others are part of chains like the one started by Joburg-based MBA graduates who are chuffed about their “sustainable financial model for low-fee private schools in South Africa”.

Although the Centre for Development and Education 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 SA Schools Act which regards “equity” as a supreme value.

We should take serious note of the uneven quality of privatised schools at grass-roots 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.

The Mercury

* Meintjies is a political analyst and writer. He writes a regular blog, Sideview.

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

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