Durban - While low-fee independent schools have been touted as a way out of dysfunctional public schools in impoverished communities, some education researchers argue that the privatisation of schools is tantamount to selling out the right to quality public education for all.
In a report released last week, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, based in Johannesburg, recommended that the government increase the subsidies to independent, non-profit low-fee schools, to enable the schools to lower their fees and serve poorer communities - all at a lower cost to the government.
To qualify for a subsidy equal to 60% of what a provincial education department spends on the education of a public school pupil, the fees of a low-fee independent school must be below R6 000. Schools charging fees of R6 000 to R12 000 qualify for a 40% subsidy.
Another report released by the centre in May estimated that 250 000 South African children from disadvantaged communities were enrolled at low-fee independent schools.
But Salim Vally, associate professor of education at the University of Johannesburg, argued that while there were serious problems in the public school system, the solution did not lie in private schools.
“Rather, it rests on ensuring that we have functioning public schools, accountable to the communities they serve and which provide quality education,” Vally said.
“Public, quality, basic education is a human right and charging fees for basic education violates the right of children to free basic education,” he argued.
“Nowhere is there an example of a country with high educational outcomes where the provision of basic education has been in private hands. Yet there is now an increasingly insistent view suggesting that the privatisation of education - whether through high-cost or low-cost private schooling, charter schools or the voucher system - is the solution to the problems of the education system.”
Last year the South African Institute of Race Relations suggested the government take the money it spent on running schools and instead use it to provide all parents with vouchers which would allow them to enrol their children at what they considered the best schools.
The idea was that with these bursaries, parents would “buy” education for their children from a school of their choice - whether an independent school, a former model C school or an ordinary public school.
In 2012, the Centre for Development and Enterprise also advocated a new type of school, funded by the government but run by a private individual or organisation.
These so-called contract schools (called charter schools in the US) remained part of the public education system, but would be free of red tape and bureaucracy and would have the autonomy to hire and fire principals and teachers.
Carol Anne Spreen, an associate professor from New York University and visiting researcher at UJ, said that low-fee, profit-driven schools were increasingly being “sold” to governments throughout Africa by corporations and private foundations as cost-effective and profitable.
“What is problematic is that this movement is led by powerful and influential ‘edu-businesses’ and ‘edu-preneurs’ across the world with enormous power and resources devoted to undermining and circumventing funds from the public sector.”
What the Centre for Development and Enterprise argues are myths about independent schools:
* Independent schools were expensive, exclusive and deepened social inequality.
* Support for the growth of low-fee schools meant support for the privatisation of all.
* Independent schools turn education, a public good, into a profit-generating commercial commodity.
* Independent schools were a distraction from the challenge of improving public schooling.
The centre countered criticisms by arguing that in low-fee schools nearly all pupils were black, and with few exceptions low-fee schools followed the national curriculum. Most independent schools in South Africa were not for profit. While the government, NGOs and the private sector worked to improve the public school system, independent schools contributed by saving the state money.
What Salim Vally argues are the adverse consequences of the independent schooling sector:
* The removal of middle-class children from the public schooling system, and their separation from a wider network of social engagements and interactions.
* It almost always relied on the best publicly trained teachers in the country.
* The stimulation of perhaps the greatest outbreak of corruption in the public service through textbook provision, standardised tests, school meals and other outsourcing measures.
* Privatisation engendered the idea of competitiveness and individualism as the overarching values in society.