Do Independent Schools Prepare Their Students for the Real World?

Access to quality education is a discussion in which many of us find ourselves participating.

South Africa’s democratic government emphasises the right of all South Africans to access basic education, irrespective of race, cultural or religious beliefs. There is, of course, robust debate around the right to education vs. quality education, but that is a topic for some other time. Suffice to say that independent schools are at the forefront of providing the very best educational experience for their students.

Parents sometimes question whether the value of placing a child in a private school environment is in line with the fees this requires. South African independent schools have historically been perceived as elitist and prejudiced environments, and therefore incapable of thoroughly preparing their students for life in the ‘real world.’

I confess that I, too, once believed that independent schools were too privileged and unrealistic a setting in which to learn about the challenges of life. Barriers to entry, such as preferences given to ‘old girls’, the ‘extras’ that cost hundreds of rands, the selection of students based on performance levels, the language barriers and so forth, perpetuated that belief. I even questioned the teachers in the classroom, the pastoral care and the community service programmes delivered by the independent schools.

However, being in the school environment as the marketing and admissions manager for St Peter’s College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, and interacting with private school alumni, coupled with my own professional and parenting journey, has resulted in a 180-degree turnaround in my opinions about independent education.

Brand promises

As a marketing and communications professional, I am primarily concerned with brands, and scrupulous about the alignment of the public with the internal brand. I firmly believe that independent schools in South Africa are brands, requiring marketing, public relations, communications and thought leadership.

Interaction with other independent schools has given me insights into how independent schools operate, and I have observed keenly how well my own school, St Peter’s College, delivers on its brand promise of enabling students to get the most out of their childhood whilst preparing them for tomorrow’s complex world, by leveraging the power of and rather than or.

St Peter’s offers academics and sport and cultural activities in a professional and informal environment, where students will learn to take responsibility and have fun, and where they will receive individual attention and a sense of community. They will also learn about the importance of heritage and forward-looking, pioneering thinking at our school, which is truly South African and world class. A St Peter’s education will help them develop into resilient and caring adults.

I believe that I have a responsibility of care for the authenticity of the brands I manage, both in terms of messaging and the core experience delivered by these brands. A school such as St Peter’s College lives out its brand promise by placing the child at the heart of everything it does, which is in keeping with the school’s culture of inclusivity and the ethos it cultivates around personal development.

Remember that education is a basic right

Contrary to the perception that independent schools preclude some applicants based on academic performance, St Peter’s does not impose entrance examinations or selection assessments. Instead, the school commits to delivering quality education to students from all social classes, as evidenced by its comprehensive learning support programme and a philosophy focused on improving individual motivation towards mastery and purpose.

Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Although I do believe that, generally speaking, in South Africa, access to independent schools is still too limited by various socio-economic factors, many of these schools deliver on their constitutional obligation to offer basic education. Indeed, many independent schools are focused on producing fully rounded graduates equipped to handle the challenges of life after school.

St Peter’s is a perfect example of how independent schooling is evolving to meet the particular challenges of life in South Africa. At the heart of the school’s educational journey is an unwavering focus on preparing its students for the world they are entering. The support structure that enables St Peter’s students to reach readiness is specifically built to ensure that no child is left behind. All students are encouraged to explore their individual passions, reach their own potential, and embark on a career path that will utilise their particular strengths to the fullest extent.

Always aim for more inclusivity

Increasingly, independent schools like St Peter’s have become more diverse, inclusive and accommodating. This is likely to be an ongoing trend, as many independent schools are deliberately transforming their spaces to accommodate a wider range of needs and relaxing barriers to entry through scholarships, bursaries, and educational partners.

Nokukhanya Neswiswi, student recruitment officer at Student Sponsorship Programme, and a parent, says that as a black woman who had no access to independent education herself, the safety and broad educational and pastoral exposure offered by St Peter’s is exactly why she sent her child to a private education institution. She also appreciates that the school requires parents to engage fully with the development of their children; a factor that has long-term benefits for both child and parent.

In the South African context, each student faces an uncertain future, irrespective of their family background. Their reality includes grappling with the fact that 95% of South Africans live below the poverty line, that the World Health Organisation has found that our country has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, and that an overall 1% increase in the crime rate in 2020 included a terrifying 20% increase in murders.

No school can fully prepare their children for all eventualities in the real world, but it is imperative that the independent school community understands that independent education has a particular obligation to prepare children for these socio-economic challenges.

The worth of independent schools in the current South African climate is unquestionable, and the drive to prepare students for the real world is set to maintain their relevance for the near future.