Less costly independent schools now a necessity

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

There was a bit of a media brouhaha recently, when Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema said he would be sending his child to a private school.

Malema was accused of being a hypocrite given the EFF position that stipulates that public officials must use public services.

Malema countered that he was not conflicted in his decision to give his child the best available education and I agree. It would make no sense for a parent to send their child to a dysfunctional state school merely to make an ideological point. There is very little at this point that anybody can do that will dramatically change the course of public education.

Activists and reformists such as I have been trying their utmost to work with the system or change it in more combative ways, using protest and litigation, with little systemic reform being felt. There have been victories here and there on paper and in principle, but the messy business of alliance politics between the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the government will keep negating prospects of change in our provincial education administrations and schools.

Moreover, "Model C" state schools in the suburbs, which are usually the first prize for black parents, have become oversubscribed and, in any case, they are practically semiprivatised, with fees becoming prohibitively higher every year.

We have to be pragmatic to get anywhere; the failures of the state system present us with an opportunity to innovate around affordable models of high-quality independent schooling, not just for SA, but for Africa as a whole. SA’s parents have already been voting with their feet. According to the Centre for Development and Enterprise, the number of state schools shrunk 9% between 2000 and 2010, while the number of private schools increased 44%.

Those who oppose private schooling do so on the principle that good public schooling should be available to all children; that private schools are not as accountable as state schools and do not necessarily provide quality education; and that it is dangerous to allow education to be commodified when it is essentially a public good.

These objections are all valid, but they are also limiting. Would it not be conceivable to reimagine the social role of private schooling in Africa in such a way that it responds to social realities rather than takes advantage of them, and that schools promote inclusivity and prepare a new segment of African citizens for the complexities of the 21st century?

Such a school would have to, in the first instance, reverse the assumption that a school requires a large complement of teachers to maintain a low teacher-pupil ratio for optimum teaching. Instead, it would require a redesigned teaching and learning model that could see small groups of pupils sharing one "superteacher" and spending the rest of their learning day with assistants and working independently. Fewer teachers means decreased costs for schools, which means fees can be reduced.

The entire learning process has to be redesigned so that pupils can work independently. The traditional school model has it that every class must have a "class teacher". The timetable and curriculum delivery would have to be designed so that a large portion of the day is spent in independent reading, doing self-driven assessments and group work. Schools would only need to invest in trained assistants, whose role would be to provide basic support to the groups. These assistants do not even have to be graduates.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for new African independent schools would be in the kind of content and learning material they use. Instead of mimicking established private schools with their colonial heritage, new schools have the opportunity to provide children with learning that promotes diverse cultural expressions and does away with the snobbery associated with private education.

I have been impressed with independent schools in SA that are pioneering this kind of model and attracting high-impact teachers to lower-income communities. Out of sheer necessity, I may have to find one or start one so my child can access decent affordable schooling.

Picture source: THINKSTOCK

By Nomalanga Mkhize

Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University.

Article Source: Business Day