Buy your way out of weak state education - Beeld 8 March 2014

If South African schoolchildren were elephants, there would be an international outcry against the culling in the schooling system.

If South African schoolchildren were elephants, there would be an international outcry against the culling in the schooling system. The 562 000 pupils who wrote their National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination in 2013 constituted only half the number enrolled in grade 10 two years before. Various reasons may explain why almost 500 000 of the million-plus pupils who enrolled in grade 10 in 2011 never wrote their NSC two years later, but many are discouraged from writing by the desire of schools and educational authorities to push up their NSC pass rates. 

That pass rates are inflated in this way is one of many indictments of the government schooling system. Educational authorities admit that 80% of government schools are dysfunctional. We should not forget the 20% that work. Some of these include poor schools in poor areas, such as Mbilwi in Limpopo that was ranked by Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State and president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, as the top performing school in the country last year.

Parents, however, are voting with their feet and their pay cheques against the poor schooling which is the lot of most black children.

In the last 12 years, attendance at government schools has increased by 2.4% (to almost 12 000 000). Enrolment at independent schools has doubled from 256 000 to 504 000. The total number of independent schools is now more than 3 500.

Demand for such schools is clearly growing. So is supply.

Although it is widely believed that independent schools cater largely for the affluent, this is no longer true - if it ever was. Most such schools cater for poorer communities. Some charge fees below those charged by some government and former model-C schools. Some charge only half the R12 000 that the Government spends on schooling per pupil.


Of the two education companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, one caters for poorer communities. This is Curro Holdings, part of Jannie Mouton's PSG group. It offers quality private schooling at less than R1 400 a month, and recently held a rights issue of almost R600 million to enable it to expand its campuses from 31 to 80 by 2020. The company says it underestimated the demand for affordable independent schooling.   


Most independent schools are non-profit institutions, however. Creating more independent schools, whether non-profit or profit-seeking, would not only meet growing demand, but also reduce the burden on often dysfunctional provincial education departments.    


How are more independent schools to be created? The guiding principles are privatisation, competition, consumer choice, and empowerment of the poor.

The Government would auction off its schools to private institutions, both profit-seeking and non-profit. The latter would include church groups, local chambers of commerce, trade unions, trusts and charities - anyone willing and able to raise the money via mortgage bonds or otherwise to purchase these assets from the State. 

The new owners would appoint principals, who would appoint teachers. They would then open up for business.

The Government would steadily reduce its own involvement in the actual provision of schooling. Crucially, however, it would remain the main funder thereof. 


The R12 000 the Government spends on average per pupil per year would be diverted from running schools and employing teachers into the hands of parents in the form of vouchers. These would be issued through filling stations, or cellphone shops, or banks, or supermarkets -  any institution with a national network. Parents would take along their children's birth certificates or ID to obtain a bar-coded  voucher for one year of schooling at a time.


Independent schools would then compete for voucher-bearing pupils. To do so successfully they would have to offer strike-free teaching, efficient management, and all the other things that the better schools now provide to the relatively small number of pupils fortunate enough to attend them. Competition among schools for pupil-customers demanding quality schooling would do more than any other factor to elevate the standards of South African education. Schools which failed to deliver good results would fail to attract customers and would go out of business.


Voucher systems - or equivalent systems through which the state continues to pay for education that private institutions provide - are gaining ground in a variety of countries, including Pakistan, India,  the Philippines, Kenya,  Uganda, Ghana, Liberian, Nigeria, Chile, Colombia, the UK, and the US. They operate also in Sweden, Denmark, and Holland.     

The idea was first thought of by Chicago economist Milton Friedman in 1955.   

Opinion surveys in the US show that vouchers are especially popular with black parents in the inner cities, who see them as a means to buy their children's way out of poor state-provided education. The strongest opponents of such systems are teaching unions, whose power they threaten. They are also opposed by people who ideologically favour the state over the private sector. They are further opposed by people so obsessed with equality that they would rather all poor children got a bad education than allow more and more of them to get a good one.  


Implementation in South Africa will not be as simple as set out above. But there is plenty of experience from around the world to show us how best such a system could be introduced into this country.


* Kane-Berman is consultant to the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article appeared in Afrikaans in the By supplement to Beeld on 8th March 2014.