State must assist the private sector in providing education – Business Day, 28 July 2014

The state should get out of the business of running schools. Instead, it would divide its schooling budget into bursaries in the form of vouchers given to parents to enable them to buy education from the provider of their choice.

SOMETHING odd is happening in South African education: growth in no-fee government schooling has gone hand-in-hand with growing demand for fee-paying private schools.

Ten years ago, almost all schoolchildren had to pay fees, even in government schools. Today, about 86% of such schools — nearly 21,000 of them — are no-fee schools, while the proportion of pupils who are in no-fee schools is 73%.

One might have thought that the growth of no-fee schooling would have caused the numbers of pupils in government schools to rise dramatically. Instead, it has barely moved over the past decade. The number of government schools has actually dropped almost 10%. By contrast, over the same period, the number of independent schools has risen from 971 to 1,584. The number of pupils enrolled in them is officially put at 514,000.

What accounts for these apparently contradictory trends? The growth of the black middle class is one factor. As parents get richer, they can buy better education for their children than run-of-the-mill government schools provide.

Dissatisfaction with government schooling is another factor. It appears elsewhere too. Real increases in public spending on school education in the US have been accompanied by declining performance. So the US is experiencing more home schooling, the establishment of charter schools, and the introduction of voucher systems — all making for less hands-on bureaucratic control and more accountability to parents.

For countries where the prevailing ideology has for so long been that the state is the best teacher, these are radical changes. That ideology holds less sway in many poor countries, where there are many schools run as profitable businesses in slums and shantytowns. These include Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, India, Pakistan and China, as well as many in South America and around the Pacific.

Key to their success is that the proprietor is accountable to parents. Various studies in different countries show that pupils in these schools generally get better results than those in government schools.

South Africa has for a long time had a handful of schools run as businesses, but the number is growing, with two listed companies now providing school education.

Most independent schools in South Africa are nonprofits, however. Many well-known ones charge high fees, but a growing number charge less than R15,000. Some charge fees more or less equivalent to the average state expenditure per pupil of R12,160.

The growth of independent schooling is the outcome of parental choice — or demand — translated into growing supply. So we face the irony of growing demand for fee-paying schools and apparently shrinking demand for no-fee schools.

Obviously, there is a relationship between willingness to pay fees and ability to exact value for money. The introduction of a voucher system is the simplest way of making this possible for everyone.

The state would get out of the business of running schools. Instead, it would divide its schooling budget into bursaries in the form of vouchers given to parents to enable them to buy education from the provider of their choice. This would do more to create equality of opportunity and fix education than any other single step the government could take.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations

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