WE WANT TO LEARN: Many parents believe that private education means quality education and end up enrolling their children in illegally operated school.
WE WANT TO LEARN: Many parents believe that private education means quality education and end up enrolling their children in illegally operated school.
SCHOOL-GO-ROUND: An illegal school in Zwelitsha has opened another structure in Khayalitsha. A Gauteng Education Department spokesperson said when they shut down an illegal school, they work with parents to place pupils.
SCHOOL-GO-ROUND: An illegal school in Zwelitsha has opened another structure in Khayalitsha. A Gauteng Education Department spokesperson said when they shut down an illegal school, they work with parents to place pupils.
Before the school day begins at SPARK Bramley, children sing and dance, swaying to positive, upbeat tunes.

On a recent Wednesday morning, it’s Whitney Houston and One Republic on the beat.

Wearing khaki shorts and navy polo shirts adorned with laurel leaves, the SPARK logo, the children take advantage of Sparks Fly, their morning assembly, to get ready for the school day.

“I am a SPARK scholar and I’m going to university,” the children recite, a reflection of SPARK’s core values: service, persistence, achievement, responsibility and kindness. At this location, there’s also a Bramley-specific core value of compassion.

It’s a daily morning tradition at all 11 sites in the SPARK Schools network, a group of low-cost private schools that are a part of a rapidly growing trend in Gauteng, where a quarter of schools are independent and nearly 40% of the country’s independent schools are located.

However, not all low-cost private schools are created equal. Education experts warn of unregistered fly-by-night operators that prey on the perception that private necessarily means better.

And even the legitimate outfits, such as the ones in the SPARK network, face their own issues - mainly, a question of whether they are truly affordable.

'MORE, BETTER AND DIFFERENT'

Lebogang Montjane, the chief executive of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa), said the rise in independent schooling as a whole can be traced to the beginning of democracy in South Africa.

“Before 1994, the vast majority were denied school choice for their children,” he said. “Now parents can exercise the freedom to choose what type of education they will give to their children.”

In Gauteng, which devoted the lion’s share of its provincial budget to education, the issue of placing an ever growing number of students in a limited number of schools has contributed to the rise in these alternatives.

There are 18% of the country’s pupils in Gauteng, who are supported by only 11% of the country’s schools, according to preliminary 2016 data from the Department of Basic Education. The rise of urbanisation, coupled with the lag in building public schools to meet the growth, has created a gap in the market that independent schools are seeking to fill, Montjane said.

The growth of affordable private schooling can be traced “to a persistent parental demand for more, better and different”, Montjane said, referring to the lack of government schools, the perception that private means better quality and the desire for different curricula, philosophies or focuses.

Although private education is a growing sector, education professor Shireen Motala said it is too small to be a long-term solution, with less than 7% of the country’s schools being independent.

“They’ll never be a solution to the problem of poor-quality public schooling because the reach of private schools, low cost or high cost, is so small,” said the University of Johannesburg professor.

UNDER THE RADAR

The rise in alternative options of schooling has also led to something more sinister: unregistered, illegally operating independent schools.

Salim Vally, an education professor at the University of Johannesburg, said these schools often open in city centres and prey on parents who perceive a private education as a better one.

“The mere fact that they are private and in the city centre, for many parents, they believe that this automatically will translate into quality education, but it’s been shown that many of these schools are really rackets,” said Vally, who also directs the university’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation.

Montjane cautioned against the perception, saying that just as there are independent schools that outperform public schools, there are high-performing public schools that outpace independent schools.

Although any person can open up an independent school, it must be registered with the provincial education department. Convicted violators face a sentence of at least three months.

Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi said it’s difficult to estimate how many schools are operating illegally, because if a school is able to bankroll itself, then there would be no need to request financial assistance from the government.

“People try to open a school almost every day, but there is a process that needs to be followed,” he said. “People have tried to open illegal schools, but it’s very difficult to operate one.”

Oupa Bodibe, the Gauteng Education Department spokesperson said when they shut down an illegal school, they work with parents to place pupils into public schools.

Parents should remove their children from the school while this is happening, he added.

'LOW COST, BUT FOR WHOM?'

There is a danger in viewing this booming sector as the solution to a crisis in public education, according to education experts, citing doubts of the sector’s ability to reach a wide swath of the population.

SPARK charged about R19000 for tuition in 2017.

By comparison, the most expensive private schools easily break the R100000 mark, and JSE-listed Curro Holdings, a network of more than 100 affordable private schools, charged between R12000 and R90000, depending on the model, last year.

Although low-cost private school networks like SPARK and Curro offer cheaper options for private schooling, the fees they charge are not low cost for the majority, Vally said.

“You perpetuate inequalities no longer along racial lines as in the past, but along social class lines,” he said. “Some call it class apartheid.” 

Removing middle-class children from public education disrupts a wider network of social cohesion and interaction, he said.

The global move toward privatising education at a lower price point is highly controversial, with critics warning that the low-cost private schooling industry is largely undefined.

Prachi Srivastava, a professor at Western University in Canada, said a calculation she carried out in March 2015 found that the fee SPARK charges represented 62% of income in a household with one full-time worker being paid South Africa’s lowest official wage rate, a figure she called “shocking”.

Supporting one child for multiple years is unaffordable and unsustainable, said Srivastava, whose research on low-cost private schooling in India led her to coin the term “low-fee private schooling”.

“How? How is it low cost? For whom?” she asked. “It might be low cost, but I don’t know for whom. It’s not low cost for the lowest wage-earning households.”

SPARK Schools chief executive Stacey Brewer said SPARK’s “low cost" does not necessarily refer to the cost for families that send their children to a SPARK school.

Instead, SPARK takes the government’s cost to educate as a benchmark and shows it can provide better results for its students.

Brewer co-founded SPARK not only because the quality of education concerned her, she said, but also the amount of money the government was pouring into education wasn’t “translating into results that we want to see”.

At SPARK, students are performing at a grade level above their peers in government school, according to Brewer.

“When we talk about low cost, we’re talking about government’s total cost to educate, because no one in the country is able to create the quality that we do and at our price point.”

The highest fees at a government school are about R45000 per annum, which reflects favourably on the SPARK network.

However, if that is out of reach, there are other Isasa (Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa) schools that charge less than R1000 monthly, said Montjane.

“As I always say, if a parent is paying a school fee in the public system, they often can find an independent school charging a similar fee,” he said.

SAFETY CHECK

Although a small slice of the pie, the independent schooling sector has raised red flags for Faranaaz Veriava, an advocate focused on education rights at SECTION27, a public interest law centre in Joburg.

In her research for a January 2014 publication commissioned by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law, Veriava found a case in which parents had to consent to the use of corporal punishment as a requirement for admission.

Although that is not indicative of all schools, Veriava said a close eye needs to be kept on the sector as a whole.

“In the low-fee private sector there’s a lot of movement now and we need to make sure that our legal framework moves with the times and with the current mushrooming of these schools,” she said. “Currently, it’s not. It’s far from it.”

There are other issues, she said, such as the removal of pupils when parents can no longer afford the fees - even if they are in the middle of the term. This is a concern because many of these networks run as for-profit entities. Last year, Curro generated more than R1.7billion in revenue.

According to the Department of Basic Education, pupils at government schools are allowed to remain in class, even if the school is taking legal action against the parent for non-payment of fees.

For Veriava, there is simply no way that private education can be the answer for the education crisis. No matter how low cost it is, there are those who are not provided for, she said.

“The solution for the crisis in public education is for our government to take the issues in historically disadvantaged schools seriously and improve education provisioning in those schools, improve management, ensure good quality teaching in those schools,” she said. “That is the solution, not private schooling.”

A SPARK TO REMEMBER

At the end of the school day, students at SPARK Bramley sit on the ground, waiting for their parents to pick them up.

They sit neatly in rows, a reflection of the SPARK education, which focuses on discipline and developing life skills, such as conflict resolution, that students can use at school and at home.

Students often bring these skills home and share them with their parents, Brewer said, which helps create a larger impact on society.

Pupils at the school come from a wide range of economic backgrounds, with some walking to school and others arriving in Range Rovers and taxis. At Bramley, the majority of the students are black.

“We’ve been very excited to see the diversity in our student body in terms of race and economic background,” Brewer said. “We think it’s a very powerful way to start change in the country.”

The network has grown rapidly in recent years. At SPARK Bramley, enrolment increased from 150 to 650 students in three years.

However, the critics remain sceptical and caution that all the money being poured into private schooling may be ill-spent.

“The biggest problem is the attention being given to privatisation as the magic bullet to solve problems of education, of access, of quality has really resulted in the neglect of the attention to needs and resources to improve public schools,” Vally said.

But for the leaders, the staff and the families SPARK serves, they’re on board with its mission to disrupt the South African education landscape.

Pierre Aucamp, a coffee shop owner and father of a SPARK Bramley student, said the emphasis on life skills and quality of education makes SPARK the ideal choice for his 8-year-old son.

“They’re bridging that gap between people who can afford quality education and those who can’t, so it truly is an equaliser,” said Aucamp.

Brewer said change was possible and hopes the success she’s found with SPARK will inspire others.

For her, an idea she had at a business school has now led to a network of schools that serves 4000 families, with plans to increase that number to 13 500 and to have 20 locations by 2019

“When a country is faced with a national problem, don’t wait for government to sort it out,” she said. “An average South African such as myself and the team together, a group of committed people, literally, can start changing a country.”