South Africa’s SPARK Schools: Innovation lights a fire
The mantra is crafted for the aspirational South Africans who send their children to SPARK Schools, where the tuition fee is tailored to modest budgets but students are able to compete with their well-heeled peers.
SPARK’s founders, Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison, with their background in business and vision of a profitable school system, typify a new wave of education entrepreneurs.
With the idea of providing affordable high-quality education, they founded SPARK Schools in 2011. Brewer explains: “A lot of people said a hybrid of high-quality education at an affordable cost was impossible, but it is through innovation that we are able to do it.”
SPARK uses blended learning, which combines teacher-led and computer-based instruction. The school invests in its human capital and has adopted a ‘surgeon model’ – where teachers are specialists in one subject.
With an inadequate supply of quality teachers, human capital is perhaps SPARK’s biggest outlay. Each teacher is offered 250 hours of training per year – more than the average state school teacher receives in a decade.
Charging R15,750 ($1,223) a year, SPARK benchmarks its fees on the equivalent amount the government spends to educate a child. Their first school, which opened in 2013, is oversubscribed. SPARK now runs four schools, with a further four opening next year. Brewer and Harrison aim to have 64 schools in the next decade.
Despite the brisk growth of low-fee private schools across the continent, it is not a lucrative industry. SPARK Schools started to break even in the third year. “Education is a long-term investment – it is not a quick-fix.
The financial returns are largely unproven, so it is a lot of risk in terms of investors coming on board,” Harrison says. Their initial funders were high-net-worth South Africans as well as the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, which provides minority equity investments in for-profit companies.
They avoid the government subsidies that prop up low-fee private schools across the country. “That is what is different about us. We have taken a conscious decision about that because we want to have the ability to scale and be sustainable and because, at the moment, government money is not a completely reliable source of income,” says Brewer.