Posted on Friday, 06 November 2015 12:20

South Africa's low-cost learning

By Gillian Parker in Johannesburg

Photos© All rights reserved The country is host to a growing number of private schools that are competing to deliver quality education and using innovative teaching and management techniques to attract more students out of the troubled state schooling sector


Leriq and his classmates work through their online exercises on Chromebook computers at the SPARK primary school in Bramley, a suburb of Johannesburg.

Leriq's screen shows a hippo posing a mathematical question requiring him to add up dots. The hippo gobbles them up, and Lariq punches the air in jubilation.

This model of 'blended learning', in which children rotate between teacher-led classes and time in the computer lab, is the first on the continent.

"They are learning and thinking in a teacher-led environment, then they practise what they learn online. That rotation fosters independent work," says SPARK Schools co-founder Ryan Harrison.

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"The really valuable part is that the software tracks each child and generates data that can be interpreted." It is this cutting-edge innovation that has led to demonstrably better academic results and won the founders awards.

Private schools have long been regarded as the preserve of elites, but schools like SPARK are contributing to the boom in low-fee private education in Johannesburg and cities around Africa, serving the relatively poor at relatively low cost.

Low-fee private schools charging less than R12,000 ($930) a year, roughly the same amount the government spends on each public school learner nationally, educate an estimated quarter of a million students in South Africa, according to the think tank Centre for Development and Enterprise.

South African low-fee schools are considerably more expensive than their counterparts in India – where some charge as little as $150 per year – and Kenya. The main reason for the higher fees is the high standards required for registration and accreditation.

The Department of Basic Education estimates that in the first 14 years of this millennium the number of pupils in independent schools more than doubled to 538,421, accounting for 4% of all learners.

Umalusi, the statutory body with the mandate to accredit all independent schools, estimated that in 2013 there were about 3,500 independent schools.

The number of unregistered independent schools – those seeking to avoid the regulator's steep fees – is unknown, but the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) reckons it is more than 1,000.

"What is happening is that with the population influx with people coming from all over the country and from outside of South Africa to urban areas, the state is unable to keep up with the influx of pupils or get the infrastructure where people are," says Lebogang Montjane, ISASA's executive director.


Bottom of the class

The burgeoning of low-cost independent schools also reflects a growing desire among South African parents for their children to be privately educated in the hope of accessing better education than what is provided by the state.

A World Economic Forum report ranks South Africa last out of 148 countries for the quality of its maths and science education. Education gobbles up a fifth of the national budget, but outcomes are still fairly dismal.

State schools are often beleaguered with strikes and overcrowding. In Port Elizabeth in July, protests over the dire state of education there turned violent, resulting in police involvement.

Most notably, Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed Curro and ADvTECH are meeting the demand for private tuition. They provide franchised brands catering to different markets in terms of the price and level of education. Up-market ADvTECH announced at the end of 2014 that it intends to push into the lower-fee category.

Its low-to-mid-market rival Curro has expanded rapidly to 36,021 learners in 42 schools within the past four years. It has also been the focus of controversy after reports of alleged segregration at a school in Pretoria. Curro moved towards a hostile takeover of its smaller up-market competitor in July after ADvTECH's board rejected a cash and share offer to create a $2bn educational heavyweight.

Despite boasting brisk growth rates, these players will have to compete with the wave of ambitious entrepreneurs entering the private education market to offer innovative quality education at reasonable prices.

"The MBA-ers are entering education in droves. We are seeing a very different type of model and we are seeing the commercial practices coming into education far more significantly for both profit and not-for-profit players," says ISASA's Montjane.

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There are three main types of private providers: the large, publicly listed companies like Curro, smaller for-profit chains and the non-profits.

SPARK Schools co-founders, Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison, typify the trend for innovation, both of them sporting a master's in business administration from the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg. "The criticism that often comes with education is that it isn't treated as a business so it is unprofessional," argues Harrison.

Nigerian-born Chinezi Chijioke studied at Harvard before getting his master's degrees from Stanford in the US. The founder of Pioneer Academies, he opened his first school this year in southern Johannesburg, with an initial enrolment target of 150 students.

The numbers quickly soared to 250. "Parents seem to agree that a different approach to teaching is needed," Chijioke explains. Within a decade he plans to open another 100 schools that will focus on inquiry-based study that fosters independent learning and problem-solving.


No silver bullet

"It is a fantastic investment if you have patience. It can be a pretty good dividend for the long term," says Chijioke while walking round airy classrooms whose glass walls are decorated with vivid learning diagrams.

"But if you're trying to start a school, break even and return capital within five years, you are going to make really bad decisions."

There is a $20bn market for new mass and middle-income private schools across Africa over the next decade, with $7.5bn in new school opportunities for mass and middle income-priced schools across just Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, he says.

But private schooling alone is no silver bullet. By 2050, 34% of the world's population under 15 will live in Africa. "The incredible scale of Africa's youth population over the next 35 years is why there will continue to be a great need for both public and private provision of learning and for a wide range of innovation in making schooling accessible to children," Chijioke says.

With most private schools catering for the 35 million people living in urban areas, bringing up the level of state education is crucial for the 19 million people living in rural South Africa.

"The whole pro-private argument rests on the idea that competition between a range of similar suppliers means they are constantly driving up standards and keeping prices lower. But that isn't possible in sparsely populated rural areas. So in some cases, you find that private schools are even worse than state schools," says Joanna Härmä, an education expert from the University of Sussex.

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