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Low-fee private schools and vouchers can save SA’s woeful education system

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

It is no secret that South Africa’s education system is failing its learners, while half-literate teachers spend half their time on strike. The numbers are damning. A solution is required, and we shouldn’t expect it to come from the government that caused the crisis.

In the largest-ever ranking of countries by average performance on international student achievement tests, South Africa came second-last. In the share of students not acquiring basic skills, it ranked third worst. In secondary school enrolment rates, it came 69th out of 76.

These are some of the alarming numbers highlighted in a recent policy paper written by researcher Marius Roodt for the Institute for Race Relations (IRR).

In another international ranking, South Africa came second-last in mathematics and dead last in science, even though it tested Grade 9s, while most other countries tested the equivalent of Grade 8s. According to the Deparment of Education, this woeful performance actually reflects a dramatic improvement in both subjects.

In an international reading level test, South African learners in Grade 4 came stone last. They performed slightly worse in 2016 than the same grade did in 2011. Boys in particular did quite a lot worse, and underperformed girls by a significant margin. Fully 78% of South Africa’s Grade 4 learners (typically aged 10 or 11) are functionally illiterate.

An inability to read or do basic arithmetic hampers a child’s further education. How can an illiterate child be expected to learn abstract concepts in economics, history or science, when the groundwork has not been laid in earlier grades?

Many reasons for the failure of South Africa’s education system are highlighted in Roodt’s paper. The obvious ones are poverty, the education level of parents, lack of resources at school, and a teachers’ union that cares a whole lot more about the material comforts of teachers than about the fate of those they are failing to teach.

Roodt’s paper proposes increased private sector involvement in education and a government-sponsored voucher system to “give power back to parents”.

In the debate about how to solve the education crisis, however, one quickly runs into the ideological blinkers of people who view government in a profoundly patriarchal way. They expect it to act as a sort of parent figure towards its adult citizens, policing behaviour and even language, and providing all sorts of basic goods and services at low or no cost. In particular, they consider education to be a basic human right, and government to be the agency that must deliver it.

Of course, access to education certainly is, and should be, a right. It is enshrined in the South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights in section 29: “Everyone has the right to a basic education.”

However, the Constitution does not envision that the government is the only agency providing such education. It says:

Everyone has the right to establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational institutions that do not discriminate on the basis of race; are registered with the state, and maintain standards that are not inferior to standards at comparable public educational institutions.”

The Constitution even “does not preclude state subsidies for independent educational institutions”.

But not everyone agrees with the Constitution. When the UN proposed that in education there is a “huge potential for applying innovative mechanisms and harnessing the private sector”, there was an outcry from civil society groups, according to an IRR report from December 2017 by John Kane-Berman.

But encouraging the private sector to participate in education is anathema to organisations such as SECTION27 and Equal Education (the latter of which is currently embroiled in a sexual harrassment scandal involving several of its senior staff, which has seen it excluded from schools in at least one province).

Such groups view education as a bastion of socialism, where the government plays the role of a benevolent patriarch who just needs to make more money, spend it more wisely, not skive off work, drink less, not beat the wife and children so often, and in general just try a little harder. Even when the children turn out too uneducated to realise any ambition beyond waving flags at road works, these civil society idealists refuse to acknowledge that government is a deadbeat dad.

Kane-Berman does an excellent job rebutting the specific objections of such groups. Many are just wishful thinking, like hoping that rich countries will provide more aid (they won’t), and that government can simply hike taxes (they can’t, and even if they can, there’s no guarantee they will be well spent).

Their objection to the profit motive in education is curious, as Kane-Berman says. This suggests, rather patronisingly, that parents are incapable of choosing whether paying for private education, instead of sending them to low- or no-fee public schools, will benefit their children. It treats the poor like stupid people with no agency.

If private schools do not perform, because of the “commodification of education” or some such meaningless buzzphrase, parents are perfectly capable of removing their children and spending whatever money they were investing in their future elsewhere.

As it is, Roodt’s paper shows that on average, independent schools perform considerably better than fee-paying suburban government schools, and those in turn do better than no-fee township schools. Considering that government expenditure on learners has been decreasing (not counting the rising salaries of teachers, which have comfortably outstripped inflation), this is hardly a surprise.

Kane-Berman’s report adds a lot of nuance, however. It identifies well-performing schools in all three categories, including no-fee schools in poor areas. Resources – especially the ability to hire additional teachers and fire delinquent ones – make a great difference, but his findings suggest that quality education is not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem.

Many of the successes he describes are down to principals that are able and empowered to enforce discipline, up to and including expulsion. An adequate supply of suitably qualified, committed teachers is also a clear differentiator between successful and unsuccessful schools. And they do exist, even in union ranks.

To replicate such success, Kane-Berman proposes to strengthen school governing boards, both in hiring and firing teachers, and in selecting competent principals, who are vital to a school’s education outcomes. At present, the Department of Education actually wants to do the opposite.

Kane-Berman’s report shows that poor government schools are not necessarily doomed to failure. His case studies show that it is perfectly possible for public schools to compete with independent schools, and many in fact do so successfully in South Africa.

That said, private schooling is growing strongly, in South Africa and in poor countries elsewhere in Africa and around the world. In response to poor quality government schooling, low-fee private schools are burgeoning in places such as Hyderabad, India and Nairobi, Kenya. Some indigent learners even attend such schools for free.

Parents are choosing to pay to rescue their children from failing public education, and so they should. Children are first and foremost the responsibility of parents, not of government bureaucrats. Some civil society activists are so alarmed at inequality in education that they would prefer everyone to be trapped in failing government schools, rather than permit some to escape to better private schools. But refusing parents the right to send their kids to better schools is clearly not in the best interests of those children.

As the examples in India and Kenya illustrate, independent schools are not limited to the expensive institutions we might associate with the term “private school”. As Roodt indicates, many in fact charge fees that are competitive with low-fee government schools, and some charge even less. There are numerous business models that compete in the private education market. A diverse education market with many competitors among which parents can choose will end up serving everyone, as it does in many other markets that serve rich and poor alike.

Some government schools could be turned over to private contractors, on the model of America’s charter schools, which would be a marked improvement on the mismanagement they suffer today.

More broadly, the IRR proposes that the government’s education budget would be better spent on education vouchers. This would enable parents to pay directly for the education of their children, and pay extra only when school fees exceed a given amount per year (Roodt proposes in the region of R12,000).

The great difference with vouchers would be that those parents, as paying customers, would then have a choice in where they send their children and how their schools are being run. If the school does not deserve their money, they can take their business elsewhere.

Such a system would force schools to compete for learners, as private institutions already do. Schools that do not deliver results will fail, as they should, while those that do will thrive and grow. Whether they are public or private, success will attract revenue and investment, which can be used to expand on those successes.

There is an ideological battle between whether schools should be public or private. I am of the latter view. However, Kane-Berman rightly points out that the more important distinction for our children is between good and bad schools. We need policies that create more good and fewer bad schools.

We face of an education crisis which threatens transformation, curtails the ability of young people to get jobs, and will reverberate throughout the South African economy for generations. If every child in South Africa were to attend secondary school, and every child were to attain at least basic skills, GDP in 2095 would be 295% higher than it otherwise would have been, according to OECD estimates from 2015. Simply educating our children to a basic standard would be worth more than R200-trillion in 80 years.

It is time we do something different. The international rankings show that literally anything would be better than the disastrous education system South Africa has now.

Encouraging investment in private schools, especially those that cater for the poor, and instituting a voucher system so that parents can reclaim control over their children’s education, would both go a long way to the recovery of basic education in South Africa. Our children – especially our poorest – deserve no less. DM


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