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Common misconceptions about the role of independent education in South Africa

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


As the executive director of ISASA, I am often contacted by the media for comment on educational matters in the country and, more specifically, those affecting independent schools. I find that some misconceptions persist around independent schools and the role they play in South Africa’s educational landscape. It is these I would like to address here.

The first area of confusion seems to be in the terminology. Invariably, our schools are called ‘private’ instead of ‘independent’, but ‘independent school’ is the correct, legal term. The South African Constitution and the South African Schools Act recognise only two categories of schools: public and independent. Public schools are statemanaged, whereas independent schools are independently governed. All schools called private prior to 1996 are now independent schools.

Independent schools are expensive

The vast majority of independent schools are not-for-profit entities which, while governed independently, are not businesses but are run on the same value basis as public schools. Furthermore, some independent schools charge no fees (as do some public schools). In addition, certain public schools charge fees comparable to – and, in some instances, more than – the fees of similar independent schools. The range of school fees, public and independent, is very wide, and parents should consider both
types of school when weighing up affordability and selecting a school that suits both their pockets and the needs of their child.

The myth of the ‘two systems’

The common misperception is that the ‘two systems’ of education in South Africa are ‘public’ and ‘independent’, when the defining difference in education provisioning – as highlighted by Professor Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University – is around fee-paying vs non-fee-paying schools. Examples of each exist in both the public and independent school sectors.

Independent schools follow different curricula and examinations

Most South African children complete the same curriculum and write the same National Senior Certificate (NSC). Only a very small number follow different curricula or write different exit examinations. South Africans can obtain the NSC qualification through three examination entities: the Department of Basic Education, the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) and the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (SACAI). Although these three entities set different examinations, they all examine the same National Curriculum Statements (NCS). Most importantly, although they examine the NCS, they do not certify candidates. The power to issue a certificate resides only with the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi). In South Africa, there is no such thing as a Department of Education or IEB certificate for matric. There is only a certificate granted by Umalusi. This certificate is standardised and gives no indication as to which examinations board conducted the assessments. This makes the certificate of a student who wrote their matric through the department indistinguishable from that of a student who wrote matric through the IEB.

‘Public and independent schools are not adversaries; they are partners.’

Independent schools are ‘better’ than public schools

The third mistaken belief is the notion that all independent schools are better than all public schools. I am always at pains to point out that there are excellent public schools and excellent independent schools. Similarly, there are terrible public schools and awful independent schools. How, then, can parents across the economic spectrum ensure that the education provided to their children is of a good standard? The answer is not public or independent. The answer is more nuanced. Here are some guidelines to consider when deciding on a school for your child:

• Fiscal planning is essential, no matter which school you choose. See education as an investment and allocate an appropriate portion of your budget to this priority. It is a necessity. Know, too, that educational inflation is always higher than national inflation and, invariably, school fees will rise at a higher rate than general salary increases. This is an international phenomenon, which is not limited to South Africa. Consequently, saving additional funds will be necessary.

• Ideally, find a school that is accessible to you as a family, to save on transport costs and time. Alternatively, allocate additional resources to address time and distance concerns.

• Do your research: Know your child and your values – be able to identify your family’s core values and what makes your child happy. Then select a school that aligns with these considerations, rather than expecting the institution to alter dramatically from what it has always been. There are many different types of schools – co-ed, single-sex, religious ethos, secular, etc. Research the school to understand what it stands for before applying.

• Should you wish to enrol your child at an independent school, be sure to check that the school is registered with the provincial education department, has an Education Management Information System (EMIS) number and can prove that all its educators are registered with the South African Council for Educators (SACE).

• On the question of quality, check the school’s matric results, particularly the bachelor’s degree entry pass rate. In the instance of independent schools, do they undertake a periodic quality review, as all ISASA schools are required to undergo every six years?

Size of the independent school sector

Independent schools educate fewer than 6% of South African children. Although small, the sector is a vital part of the educational landscape.
Independent schooling represents part of the diversity of education in South Africa and is democratically linked with parents’ rights to choose an education for their children that best suits their values and needs. Independent schools often provide education for niche markets, such as those with special learning needs, a different philosophical or pedagogical approach or a religious affiliation. Sometimes, an independent school can be the only school servicing an area. In these ways, and many others, independent schools work to support education in South Africa.

Subsidies for independent schools

The government finances public schools at different levels, according to need, but also subsidises certain low-fee independent schools to ensure enough school places for all South Africa’s children. Only low-fee independent schools can receive a subsidy, and then only at a maximum of 60% per pupil of what it would cost to educate the same pupil at a public school. Subsidising low-fee independent schools therefore saves the state money, as it would have to pay 100% (rather than 60% or less) of the cost if the same pupil enrolled in a public school. This saving can add up to millions of rands across a province, and hundreds of millions across South Africa. Judge Cameron of the Constitutional Court, in the case of KwaZulu-Natal Joint Liaison Committee v MEC Department of Education, KwaZulu-Natal et al, recognised the value of subsidising independent schools when he wrote: If all independent learners were to transfer to public school, the cost of public education in certain provinces might increase by as much as five per cent. In other words, independent schools constitute a saving on the public purse… State subsidies cost the state considerably less per learner than if the same learners enrolled in public schools. The subsidy policy is therefore ‘cost efficient for the state’.1 Especially during these economically difficult times, independent schools are significant contributors to saving the public money.

Partners not adversaries

Public and independent schools are not adversaries; they are partners. We all share the common goal of uplifting children through education. When the Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, attended the 2018 ISASA Combined Conference, she made this precise point. She did not distinguish between children who matriculated from public schools and those who matriculated from independent schools, but rather claimed them all as part of South Africa’s national achievement.


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Category: Autumn 2020

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