Newsletter 214 - IRR POLICY PAPER - The South African Education Crisis: “Giving power back to parents”


The South African Education Crisis: “Giving power back to parents” - PART 2

What is the solution?

  1. Parents need more choice, both in where they send their children and in how their schools are run.
  2. Although private schools are often perceived as being bastions of privilege, this is not always the case. Evidence from around the world shows that people of little means or earning low incomes are prepared to make major sacrifices to send their children to schools which provide a good education.
  3. Parents send their children to fee-paying schools even if the option exists of a school with no fees.
  4. Why is this? It is because in many parts of the world private schools perform better than state schools.
  5. They are often run better, with smaller class sizes and teachers who teach for longer and are absent less.
  6. For example, in Kenya it was found that half of children in Nairobi attended a fee-paying private school even though free state schooling was available. Some have suggested that this is simply because there are not enough public school spaces available to accommodate all children, especially in high density slums such as Kibera. However, work done by American researchers found that parents were choosing to send their children to private schools despite the high fi nancial costs. It was estimated that having one child in a low-cost private school in Nairobi cost about 12% of the income of the primary earner. Considering that respondents in the survey had an average of three children, choosing a low-fee private school over a free state school is unlikely to be a decision such parents take lightly. Low-fee private schools in Nairobi were perceived as being of higher quality than state schools, as well as having harder-working teachers. The only benefit that state schools had over private schools was infrastructure and   learning materials.50 It is illuminating that people – in general – still chose private schools over state schools, showing the importance of teachers.
  7. Research done in Lagos State in Nigeria and in poor areas around Accra in Ghana also found that the majority of poor people send their kids to fee-paying independent schools. These schools also produced better results than government schools.
  8. Parents will choose quality for their children, whether it is provided by private or state schools. In Rwanda, private schools are under threat – not because of government interventions or crackdowns, but simply because so many children attend state rather than private schools. The Rwandan government worked to expand and improve infrastructure and the quality of teaching, as well as abolish school fees and introduce feeding schemes, which has seen the number of Rwandan children in private schools dwindle.
  9. However, as we have seen, getting rid of fees is not enough; state schooling has to be of a high quality for parents to choose government schools over private schools. Private schools in South Africa have seen rapid growth, further evidence that people are looking for quality education for their children. For example, in 2000, about 11.6 million people enrolled in government schools in South Africa. Sixteen years later this had grown to 12.3 million, an increase of six percent. By contrast, the number of people enrolled in independent schools had jumped by 130%. Although the number of children attending independent schools was off a smaller base, this is still a significant increase. In 2000, the number of people in independent schools was 256 000, rising to 590 000 in 2016. There was a similarly large increase in the number of independent schools over that period, while the number of state schools declined. In 2000, there were almost 27 000 state schools in South Africa, declining by 12% to just under 24 000 in 2016. The Free State experienced the biggest decline, with the number of state schools in that province dropping by over 50% over the sixteen-year period.
  10. Independent schools told a different story. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of schools independent from government control rose from 971 to 1 855, a 91% increase. Not one province saw a decline in the number of independent schools, with the number in the Eastern Cape rising by a whopping 431%. Many in South Africa would argue that this is in all likelihood a symptom of white flight, with whites fleeing government schools and building more ‘Etons-on-the-Veld’, and continuing to exclude others. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the growth in private schools is because of the growth in low-fee private schools, as parents vote with their feet. In 2014, the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa had 730 member schools, and nearly three-quarters of pupils in these schools were black. Over 120 member schools charged less than R15 000 a year and about 60 less than R10 500 – fairly affordable fees and cheaper than some former Model C schools. Low-fee private schools range from schools run by private companies, such as Curro, or founded by entrepreneurs, such as Spark Schools. The Centre for Development and Enterprise also did work on low-fee private schools in poorer areas in South Africa. Six areas were studied, each where more than 50% of the population lived in poverty, yet about 30% of the schools were independent. It is clear, people want choice for their children. Getting bureaucrats out and communities involved in the governing of schools will lead to better outcomes. How can this be done?
  11. The IRR suggests a voucher system, which would effectively be a universal bursary system, while at the same time getting bureaucrats out, and communities and parents in, to control schools. Some state schools could be sold to community groups, churches, non-profi t organisations, and private education providers for a nominal amount (say R1), similar to the charter or contract school system used abroad. These schools would then be responsible for the payment of salaries and upkeep of the school. Parents would be given a voucher for each child, which they could use towards education, whether at an independent school, an ordinary state school, a Model C school, or a school run by entrepreneurs. Education spending would be redirected to pupils, to around the value of R16 000 per year (more or less what per capita spend on learners is today). This would give parents far more choice than they have today, especially those on lower incomes. Parents could shop around for the best education for their children. Poor-performing schools would soon experience an exodus of pupils. Principals and teachers at these schools would soon realise that unless their offering was improved they would be jobless. If schools had to shut down because of a lack of pupils, their facilities could be auctioned off to Curro, or Spark, or other private-schooling organisations. These buildings would then be refurbished and new schools opened. Parents will have more choice and a more diverse school system will have been created, with parents having a choice between independent schools, state schools, former Model C schools, and charter schools. This will also be a way of breaking the power of teachers’ unions such as SADTU – schooling would once again focus on what is best for the child, rather than what is best for the teacher. We estimate that these vouchers would be enough to provide high-quality schooling to all children. In the case of schools charging higher fees, parents could top up the diff erence through their vouchers. Parents will also be able to choose the ethos, curriculum, and language policy of their school.
  12. The charter school system has worked well in other countries, and evidence from the United States shows that children in these schools perform better than children in other schools, including children from poorer backgrounds. Vouchers are an idea that is now over a century old, and work well in both the developed and developing world. The IRR has also developed a charter for parents, which lays out the rights and responsibilities that parents have when it comes to making decisions about a child’s education. This Charter can be downloaded from the IRR website, where parents can also pledge their support for greater parental involvement in schools.


  1. The IRR has proposed a solution – greater parental control over schooling.
  2. Giving parents greater control over the school their children attend, and how that school operates, will result in better outcomes.
  3. It is likely that if parents can choose the ethos and language policy, and have a say in the appointments of teachers and principals, schooling outcomes will be improved. In addition, introducing a voucher system will also result in schools having to improve – state schools will no longer be able simply to rely on a captive market.
  4. Ensuring that our schools provide excellent education is one of the core building blocks in making South Africa a successful society. Without good schools, producing young people ready for university and the world of work, the problems we currently face will remain intractable.
  5. Giving parents more choice and freedom when it comes to schooling will be an important first step in facing contemporary problems, as well as putting the horrific legacy of apartheid behind us.

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