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Private schools: Price tag does not determine good education - expert

Jan 17 2017 06:52
Carin Smith

Cape Town - Be warned: the amount of money paid for private education does not guarantee a wonderful education at the end of 12 years, seasoned education expert Dr Michael le Cordeur told Fin24.

Le Cordeur is currently the chair of curriculum studies at the Department of Education at the University of Stellenbosch and Fin24 asked him for his opinion on the cost of private boarding schools - many of which will charge more than R200 000 in 2017. This mostly includes boarding fees too.

Le Cordeur said the whole issue of childhood education is perhaps more complex than one would imagine.

"For sure the SA government cannot be the only provider of education services. For instance, currently there are still more than 50 000 pupils in Gauteng and 18 000 in the Western Cape who don't even have a desk to sit at in some schools. That leaves space for another service provider due to the backlog," he said.

"It will take a long time for government to provide education for all. We need to look for creative ways to overcome this. There are, for instance, a lot of empty buildings and schools in SA. We need to recapitalise and private education can play a role in this regard."

At the same time, he is of the opinion that some private schools are simply too expensive.

"Where does the money go to? Are teachers paid more? And if so, how much more and why? There are examples of private schools that offer good service at a good price. The Curro schools are doing very good work and fill a very important gap in the market," said Le Cordeur.

"There are also many government schools offering very good education. I came from a very poor school in the Boland area and I have had wonderful teachers who gave me a very good education. Parents must just look around, they will find a school."

Le Cordeur said a good education is determined by the quality of teachers, the quality of leadership at the school and how the governing body of the school performs its task.

"You will always have your exclusive 'boys' club' going to very expensive schools. It is their democratic right, but it does not guarantee a wonderful education at the end of 12 years."

READ: Get ready to pay R250k for your child's 2017 school year - if you can

Rapidly expanding

Hugh Amoore, former registrar at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and a former member of various education task teams in SA, told Fin24 that private independent schooling is expanding at a very rapid rate in SA. He also gives Curro as an example of an independent school system that can be effective without being so expensive.

For him the question is about what are parents willing to pay and what does the school with the higher fees provide? It usually provides excellent facilities - including for sport - curriculum options other schools don't have and certainly extra-curricular activities that others schools don't have. Higher fees can also mean extra staff and some of these schools offer an international curriculum.

"Could they be cheaper? There are many independent schools in SA which have low fee structures, like some of the former Model C schools. So there is a range," said Amoore, who is a St Andrew's old boy. He gives Rondebosch Boys' High in Cape Town as an example of a state school with excellent facilities, but it is due to financial support by old boys and donors.

Amoore said one has to keep in mind that about 60% of SA schools are no-fee state schools.

"What the state does is provide a state-level of support. We are in free market social order so there are people able and prepared to pay what to us may seem like extraordinary fees of independent schooling. Compared to the independent schooling in the US, UK and Germany - and with the exchange rate - our private school fees are not high. These schools are attracting pupils who will pay what in pounds seem like moderate fees," said Amoore.

Networking opportunities

Professor Marissa Rollnick, emeritus professor at the Wits School of Education, responded to Fin24's query on the topic, but emphasised that she is doing so in her private capacity as she is not basing it on any specific experiences she has had in education.

She pointed out that fees listed by the most expensive schools in the country also include boarding, which would likely take up half the amount.

"For example, Roedean is quoted as costing R236 000, but the fees for a day scholar are around R133 000. One cannot compare school fees unless one takes that into consideration. The kind of infrastructure as well as the teacher/learner ratio that these schools have probably accounts for the very high fees charged by these schools," said Rollnick.

"It should also be borne in mind that all extras are charged to the parents, such as stationery, sick bay expenses and sport activities. In addition, there are several different uniforms and sports equipment."

In her opinion, one should also interrogate what these very expensive schools offer compared to middle price private schools such as Sacred Heart (which costs around R80 000 per year) and Quintile 5 public schools such as Parktown Girls (R70 000 per year).

"Many parents are also paying for the networking that attendance at such schools allows for their children on leaving school," remarked Rollnick.

"The one point I can comment on in my professional capacity is the level of provisioning in the teaching of science. A school like St John’s has a large science block with well-equipped laboratories and up-to-date equipment as well as a lab technician, which most public schools lack," she explained.

READ: SA spends higher proportion of budget on education than US, UK

Range of choice

Paddy Attwell, director of communication of the Western Cape Education Department, explained that independent schools play an important role in the South African education system by extending the range of choice available to parents for educating their children.

The number of registered independent schools has grown in the Western Cape over the past five years, from 196 in 2012 to 244 in 2016.

"The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) works closely with the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) to ensure quality education at private schools," said Attwell.

"The department advises parents to make sure that independent schools are registered with the WCED in line with regulations, and accredited by Umalusi, the Council for General and Further Education and Training Quality Assurance."

He said the main concern is the few independent schools that operate illegally. Officials act immediately to close them down.

"However, most independent schools have the very best interests of their learners at heart and are making an important contribution to expanding access to quality education on all levels," said Attwell.

Unequal country

Dr Nic Spaull, an education researcher at Stellenbosch University, pointed out that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.

"In the same country where we have some no-fee schools made from mud, we also have private schools charging R200 000 per year. The expansion of the private school sector is partly driven by the lack of spaces in fee-charging public schools, which typically offer a higher quality of education than their no-fee counterparts," said Spaull.

"Parents know the value of quality education and its potential to change the chances in life of their children. It is for this reason that they are willing to pay fees in spite of not having the money to spare."

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