The Private Schools

In 2016, private schools across the country came under fire amid anger over lingering racism, sexism, and sexual intolerance. That year was my final year at an elite Johannesburg private school, which I was fortunate enough to attend on an academic scholarship. This essay is not about transforming private schools, granted that reform is needed. Reforms would still fall short, considering that they would only ever reach the class of citizens able to attend those private schools to begin with, the difference now being that they will be more diverse, representative and integrated. What I have in mind, is something a bit more radical.

Every year in early January, South Africans ritualistically take part in unveiling matric results from both private and public schools. For the most part, it’s a couple of weeks overflowing with feel-good stories about the hard work of students. For many private schools, learners and teachers gleefully grace television screens and newspaper front pages to receive public commendation, and 2016 was a particularly strong year for my alma mater, with it having fielded a 100% pass and bachelor pass rate.

It’s a mixed narrative for public schools. While the spotlight tends to levitate above uplifting tales about students shackled in adversity who muster their meritocratic will to accomplish impressive results, we are also sorely reminded of the stark differences in performance between private and public schools, and amongst the latter, fee-free and fee paying ones. The recycled talking point, circles around sluggish and unsatisfactory improvements, thanks to a nagging government mismanagement, with opposition parties never failing to hammer in the charge that the dismal state of our public education system is emblematic of a failing state.

Of course, and undeniably so, endemic maladministration is seriously undermining access to quality basic education. Yet, even on the pile of court cases settling as much, the primacy of this diagnosis is starting to wear out, given the scale and persistence of the problems plaguing the public education sector. Although, it isn’t always blamed on the government. Many blame teachers unions and their supposed chokehold of government, which makes it impossible to implement strict standards of scrutiny. As a result, the argument goes, teachers become complacent, and high levels of teacher absenteeism and incompetence flourish. What connects all of these alleged causes, is that the system is collapsing upon itself, and it only has itself to blame.

But what if, there were other, external factors at play? I’d like to suggest that there might be- and not some phantom-like, organised sabotage, but that the seemingly harmless outgrowth of private education, which, purportedly surfaced as a reaction to declining standards in public education-may prove to be the very thing that ensures its decline, and, in turn, sustaining the apparent necessity of private schooling, and out of that, their profitability.

How does this happen? Let’s start by sketching some helpful figures, first looking at the sizes of the two streams. South African private schools, judging off number of students enrolled, still constitute a tiny fraction of pupils in South Africa. In 2016, 590 282 students were attending private schools. In that same year, 12.3 million students attended state schools. To put that into perspective, the number of children attending state schools is roughly equal to the amount of people living in Los Angeles, and 2 million shy of the amount of people living in Gauteng. On the other hand, private school-goers would only manage to comfortably fill up Benoni- and, for all the stereotypes, would indeed be a fitting population.

However, unlike the actual population of Benoni, the amount of private school goers is increasing. A burgeoning black middle class is starting to pluck their children out of state institutions, and perhaps as signal of their entry into that highly coveted middle class. To meet this new demand, many enterprises are propping up, and instead of emulating the lofty exclusivity of South Africa’s prestige schools, they market themselves as refreshingly accessible and affordable. Unlike the elite (white) schoolmasters of the saintly schools stubbornly trying to throwback to outdated, anglophilic visions of Empire, these emerging enterprises backed by their shareholders have seen the demand for quality and transformed education, and are generous enough to only charge you modestly for it.

What needs establishing, is that a private education system, cannot peacefully exist alongside a public school system, or, will struggle to do so without harming in some way the stability and function of state schools. Consider the figures put forward above. It should follow, that since the public education system caters to far more students, it will have a disproportionately larger budget to do so. This seems obvious when you recall the often bandied about discourse-trope about how South Africa spends more of its GDP and national budget on education than most developed countries. What if I told you, that despite this, the private education sector, although serving a much, much smaller amount of students, still comes frighteningly close to matching the spending of the government?

Unfortunately, I can’t conclusively tell you that. Readily available data on the private schooling system as a whole (and not just figures for some schools or indeterminate ranges), is hard to find. On the other hand, the basic education budget in 2018 was R246.8 billion, and spending per child was roughly R16 435 in 2017. Bear in mind, that these allocations are to cater to more than 12 million students. Having a look at the average cost of sending a child to private school over the course of their entire primary and secondary education, approximately R5722 a month would need to be saved by parents-which translates to R686 640 for 12 years of education (assuming 12 years of schooling is 120 months). Weigh this against the R197 220 the government would spend on educating a child for 12 years, and the difference is R489 420. A critical caution, is that there is a difference between the upfront cost of education for a child (what we know about private schools), and the amount actually spent on a child (what we know about government schools).  Private schools have other income streams including parental and corporate donations, and when you travel up the fee bracket to South Africa’s prestige schools, fees balloon ridiculously to between R100 000 and R300 000 per annum.

So, here begins my actual case. I am convinced that the cost of properly and qualitatively educating a child, is far more than the present capacity of our government allows for, and far more than the public discourse would allow discussion over, with the Overton window insisting that to salvage our economy we should as far as possible only tolerate programmes that limit the government’s spending, while generally viewing the expansion of public services with pocket-grabbing suspicion.

Laying aside the flaws of the accessible data, the one element that can reasonably be inferred from all the numbers outlined above, is that the performance of a school, neatly correlates with whether or not it does or doesn’t charge fees. Recall, that IEB pass rates always float in the high nineties range, while quintile 4 and 5 school pass rates hover in the high eighties to nineties range (schools in the public system are categorised according to quintiles, based on the wealth of their surrounding communities- quintiles 4 and 5 top up on state funding by charging fees). Compare that to fee-free schools with pass rates around the high sixties or low seventies. Cement all this, by remembering that in the class of 2018, quintile 4 and 5 schools accounted for 47% of the overall passes, despite constituting only 25% of the schools that sat the National Senior Certificate. Many are even starting to question whether the quintile system is really creating equitable distributions, with 53% of learners, all in quintile 1 to 3 schools not receiving the funding due to them.

Attributing these performances to a difference in the leadership exercised by school management, staff, and parents, only serves to explain away the material difference that additional resources play in producing well-performing institutions. It carries on the logic of meritocratic hubris which underpins most of what we think about our education system. Instead of understanding what happens as being governed by either strong or weak conditions and structures coercing those participating in them, it chooses to view the outcomes produced as primarily being determined by actions taken by individuals, capable of harnessing some inborn talent and virtuous responsibility, and as Michael Sandel notes, “to regard their success as their own doing.”

Sure, we spend a big portion of our national budget and GDP on education, but the rest of the world outdoes us when it comes to actual spending per child. The OECD average is R130 497. These 2011 statistics also suggest that compared to the rest of the continent, South Africa isn’t that far off when it comes to its spending trends, so believing that we currently dig an already outrageous number of funds from the public purse for education, is simply not all true. What international trends show is that on the continent, our spending is fairly normal (even though we’re much wealthier), and internationally, is behind.

To hone in on this point, let’s compare South Africa’s spending habits with that of another developing nation. I view Cuba as an exemplary model. As a share of its national budget and GDP, Cuba’s spending on education is one of the highest in the world. The Cuban government took the radical decision in 1964  to nationalise its education system, dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to education, and make school attendance 100% funded by the government. It provided early childhood development, it implemented wide-ranging programmes to support teachers, and the result is that Cuba has the best education system in Latin America. The Cuban lesson, and what needs stressing, is not simply that funnelling more money into an education system is going to see it prosper. It’s doing so purposefully, and creating a system that’s positioned to better conditions for teachers and students, by seeing education as a tool for social change and cohesion.

There is a clear impact that investing more financial resources into a child has. I claimed earlier that one thing this all turns on, is considering whether or not the differences in spending between the various streams matters. Let me explain why I think they do, and greatly so. By far the most important area to bolster the strength of an education system, is by supporting and enriching personnel- teachers as well as management and support staff. The problems flowing from our systemic lack of support, are many and crippling. South African schools have bad learner to teacher ratios. Teachers are struggling to cope with the learning difficulties suffered by students. Many teachers, have limited qualifications and thus content knowledge on a lot of subjects is weak, and subsequently detrimental to students.

How should this be addressed? Crucially, not just through a single, policy intervention. There are a few worth considering, such as re-establishing teacher training colleges aimed at upskilling teachers, reinforcing prior knowledge, and updating knowledge to keep up with the latest teaching trends. We’ll need more schools, preferably not ones too far away from the home’s of children, and because of that, more teachers.  As it stands, teachers are overburdened by large classrooms and massive work loads, and understandably cannot cope under this pressure. On top of all this, average teaching salaries in the public sector for a primary school teacher is R147 094, and for a high school teacher is R168 068. Across the globe, real wages are stagnating and the cost of living is increasing. Teachers are being squeezed out of their profession as their upward mobility is fading.

So, to arrive at the punchline- providing a robust and quality education, means that we need more money. Despite that, last year a report came out showing that government spending per learner has decreased by 8% in real terms over the last seven years. Meanwhile, the private school sector is expanding. Alas, what exactly is my point? My point is, that amassing more funding for state education won’t likely come from increasing taxes through our current tax structure. It’s bleak that it’s true, but as South Africa’s rich and middle classes always decry, our tax base is very small, and already overburdened with rising taxes. Honestly, I’m not too concerned, but that indifference doesn’t make for good policy, especially where mounting more pressure might just see more people making the capital jump abroad.

South Africa’s education regime strictly understood, is progressive, modelled on wealthier parents paying taxes to pay for the schooling of poorer children, without taking away their ability to send their own children to private schools. These parents are unlikely to be receptive to a tax increase for education funding if it means giving more to the state, while they’re also forking out tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of rands to send their children to a Curro or Hilton. But where it’s necessary for the state to invest more in public education, that money has to come from somewhere.

What happens if we eliminate this double burden? What if South Africa’s basic education system was no longer segregated, and moved towards a single payer?

I didn’t want to run into trouble by using real children from real schools…

A big, red flag of a disclaimer. By no means do I wish to cheerlead a single payer model as the panacea to South Africa’s education woes. I began this exercise by conceding to the deep-seated, bureaucratic mess that currently perseveres. Whatever policy intervention is tabled, it won’t take flight until the oil is cleared from the airstrip. It’s plain to say, but any policy can only work if carefully implemented by a hardworking and relentlessly engaged leadership. This essay is written less as a serious call to have this policy considered in the here and now, and more as a prescient nod to what might be possible in the future, and perhaps over the course of a new government following 2019. What I wish to intimate, is that assuming a capable leadership, of all the policy options available to us, this one is worthwhile.

A single payer system envisages the state as the only actor responsible for funding basic education. One route is to convert private schools to charter schools, making them publicly funded but privately operated. This is one way to give into the rhetoric of choice, and allow parents the opportunity to send their children to either charter schools, former Model C schools or a traditional public school. Charter schools, however, have been marred by controversy in the United States, their country of origin. Allowing private management of charter schools has seen the rise of so called Educational Management Organisations, which run as for-profit enterprises. Needing to pocket as much revenue as profit, they have been known to improperly reduce costs, while cracking down on teachers unions and eroding their job security. Since they’re closely monitored using a lot of outcome-based metrics, they’ve also been known to go to great lengths to weed out students who threaten test scores- children with disabilities, and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

In fact, next week, thousands of teachers in Los Angeles will prepare to strike against the increasing privatised control of public education in California. In South Africa, this model is being floated as a “public operating partnership schools” set up. In the Western Cape, “collaboration schools” allow for “school operating partners” to have majority representation on school governing bodies. We should be circumspect. The infiltration of private interest into our public education system, which has profit maximisation as it’s chief aim, is likely to introduce a whole host of other problems such as the exploitation mentioned above, and in South Africa its much worse when our educational system is especially fragile, and its users especially vulnerable.

A model that works better, is one where all schools are state subsidised and tuition free, and are state managed and run- as they are in Finland and Cuba, which both consistently top education rankings. In a moment, I’ll canvass why I think there is a moral and ideological imperative to restore full control of basic education to the state. For now I’d like to abate concerns that handing over total control to the state will spell out management disaster. It admittedly could do so, I won’t rule that out. Although as I see it, it would, if anything, ensure more accountability. I’ve long believed that social relations constituted by capitalism makes it such that outside electoral politics, the biggest threat to the state’s rule is disgruntled capital. In South Africa, capital used its power to depose a corrupt president when his actions started to meaningfully threaten their interests, despite that president enjoying popular, democratic support (regardless of whether or not we think that support was deserved). This class sends their children to South Africa’s private schools, and in the heart of Sandton, I once rubbed shoulders with them.

Education, has long been a hot-button issue, even though the upper middle class is able to effectively opt out of any interaction with the government when sourcing public services like healthcare and education, thanks to the sophisticated privatisation that runs parallel to the government. Notwithstanding education being a thorny issue, most of what this concern could ever amount to, is an abstract preoccupation that creates unfavourable attitudes towards the ruling government. Unlike the fate of the thousands of (black) working class families whose children suffer, middle and upper middle class families have little to no skin in the game. This would change that, forcing wealthier families to become both fully financially and emotionally invested, and invested in the success of the system as a whole.

The inevitable rejoinder to my position, comes by invoking parental choice arguments. Parents are entitled to seek out the best opportunities for their children, and that is possible by giving them the choice over which schools their children attend, and paying more for them to attend better schools. Well, technically parents could still have a choice under single-payer- the school down the road or the one across town (although a school lottery method would probably work best). More importantly, defending the choice of parents treads on the assumption that other parents equally have a choice, and if they don’t have the financial resources to acquire better education for their children, then it is somehow their fault.

We are all products of an ovarian lottery, thrust into this world without choice. At the will and direction of our parents, our lives are dictated by a narrow and predetermined set of values imposed on us by our parents. As a child, young and malleable, everything that it means to be you is the outcome of chance, possible simply because you are not someone else. Why then, should few have a substantially better education, designed to give them significantly better life chances? Not at all because they did anything to deserve as much, but merely by being born into circumstances that provided for such. What hope do we have towards building a better society with the full potential of human flourishing for everyone, if we use the most potent tool for shaping a child’s mind to impress upon them early on that we each deserve our assigned lots in life, instead of acknowledging the arbitrariness of it all, and rather ensuring that whatever the material conditions of your birth, it need not dictate your eventual ability to lead a fulfilled life. What hope do we have towards building a better society, if this is one of the first things children understand about society, at the very place that teaches them what it means to belong to society?

We need to re-examine what we want our education system to be. Capitalism demands that everyone submits themselves to the labour market to work for their survival, and so education is cheapened to simply preparing children to ultimately find competitive work. What giving upper and middle class parents “choice” means, is allowing them to use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get the best schooling and then the best jobs, therefore rooting themselves firmly in those classes, and dictating the affairs, values and norms of society by dominating positions of political, economic and social influence. When poorer children predictably fare much worse at school, unable to produce the good grades for which a good job is reward, the resulting class inequality is legitimated by asserting that each child has the same ability to work hard for better results, as each worker has the same ability to work hard for better pay.  What is legitimate about the top 10% earning two-thirds of national income, while those at the bottom endure wages of less than R1000 a month?

It goes without saying, that a single payer system won’t magically eradicate class inequality, nor would it abolish class distinction. A good example of where that nevertheless persists is in South Africa’s publicly funded universities. Schools located in urban and suburban areas, will probably be better off than those in townships or far-flung rural areas- which is a pattern true of our universities. I do believe, that if implemented properly, it will dramatically improve the state of those schools. Remember, that the inequality spoken of here isn’t some vague and abstract goal that wants schools to be of the same quality. It’s that the system as it exists, makes it such that your class position either entitles you to a bad education, a decent education, or a very good one. Reducing class inequality means that your class position should not be decisive of what quality of education you have access to and at minimum, should guarantee you a decent one.

In 1964, The Fabian Society, a British democratic socialist organisation (famous for founding the London School of Economics and Political Science), published a pamphlet titled “The Public Schools” (in the United Kingdom, private schools are called public schools). The pamphlet makes an impassioned case against private education, albeit sometimes reflecting the prejudices of the time (it for example cited homosexuality as a problem afflicting single sex schools).  The piece includes a biting quote from Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, a Conservative MP, who had this to say about the schooling divide:

“There has been created a kind of educational apartheid based on the financial ability of  a number of individuals wealthy enough to segregate their children from the major part of the educational system. It is thus educational apartheid, this educational separateness, which has led to, or largely contributed to, the remarkable class conscious atmosphere which pervades our society.”

If you look to the international conversation, it surprisingly reveals that cynicism about private schools isn’t just a hard-left sentiment. Former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, once remarked that, “[the] great rift in our education system [is] between our best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families rely on. That is corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy.” Heck, even billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, believes the same: “It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery.” At home, the Congress of South African Students initiated calls last year for merging the two systems, and this week, the newly established Educator’s Union of South Africa added their voices as well.  

I don’t wish to denigrate any parent who sends their child to private school, nor any child who went to private school. As Mehdi Hassan admitted in a think-piece of which I am broadly making the same argument, he, nor I, would be where we are had we not received the unfair advantages gifted to us by our private school education. The point is that as Hassan noted then, and it is true now, a two-tier education system creates a two-tier society. This is not only applicable to education in South Africa, but with respect to almost every public service available. The wealthy live comfortably in a cupola, one that only expands to admit more and more into the ranks of upper and middle class, while keeping the working class permanently locked out, and contained to ever-diminishing portions of the resource pie. Taking part in South Africa’s private education sector, is to unwittingly make its public education sector worse.

Basic education should not be understood as the beginnings of one’s CV building. This is all the more true in a technological landscape marked by increasing automation and strengthening artificial intelligence that is fundamentally going to reshape the way we understand work, and depending on which interests win out, either for better or worse. In a moment that will require more collaboration to march society forward, the forceful individualism encouraged by capitalism won’t see us through. A unified education system not only becomes a moral and ideological imperative, but a practically necessary one to prepare for the world of tomorrow. The proliferation of private schools, is antithetical to these goals. Re-framing what basic education ought to be, can only happen by seeing private schools wane.

Paulo Freire puts it best when describing the competing ideals of education that we could pick:

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

In order to transform our world, we need to think beyond the private schools, and towards a single payer system.


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