In the 2016-2017 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa’s primary education system was rated 126th out of 138 countries. It gets even more depressing when you dig a little deeper.
Education NGO, Equal Education, claims that when you adjust the matric pass rate for dropouts it falls from 75.1% to 39.25%. Of the 1,022,853 grade 2’s who should have written matric in 2017, only 629,155 registered for matric (that is a 38.49% dropout rate). When you factor in that only 534,484 pupils passed, it lifts the dropout rate to an abysmal 47.75%.
The picture gets even worse. According to University of Stellenbosch researcher Nic Spaull, between 2010 and 2017, per pupil spend fell 8% from R17,822 to R16,435 per annum (a still sizable amount) while teacher salaries rose 57% compared with a 38% increase in the consumer price index. With that said, consolidated government spending on education is set to increase by an annual growth rate of 6.8% between the financial years of 2018/19 (from R246.760bn) through 2020/21 (to R281.987bn).
I believe a number of conclusions can be drawn from this data that build the case for voucherising education, or at least, having education savings accounts that will benefit low income households. The first and most obvious conclusion is that the public education system is failing. The public schools that are failing the most are those outside of affluent areas. The system failure mostly affects children of low income households and perpetuates generational poverty.
The per pupil spend of R16,435 per year is comparable to what a parent would pay to send their child to an intermediate low fee school such as the high achieving Spark Schools, which in 2019 would charge a discounted fee(all in including stationery) of R21,300 per year; fees that would be reachable not only because arguably scale would help bring them down, but also because government could set a framework that weighted vouchers according to a number of factors, including but not limited to students with special needs, students in rural areas, students in areas with a low human development index and students who live in an area with a low median/household income.
This framework would establish a coherent way of assessing the needs of students in certain areas and tie a money value to that so that a higher “minimum” standard of education could be purchased. Tools and systems could be developed so that civil society, the public at large, and even parents could keep schools accountable.
School choice for working class and poor parents would be a good thing because, make no mistake, education and all its related factors are deeply ideological. Giving poor and working-class parents a vested interest in their child’s education and giving them the freedom to send their child to another school if they so wish is essential not only in adding another layer of accountability (parents know what their children need) but in also giving low income South Africans a sense of freedom and dignity. This should not be under-played when discussing school vouchers.
There will, of course, be objectors who, from an ideological viewpoint, will say that it is government’s constitutional mandate to meet their obligation to provide a basic education to which we would reply yes but with the addition that in April 2013, the Constitutional Court found that the right to basic education applies to all children whether in public or independent schools. In other words, government would still fulfil its constitutional mandate of giving access to all children (via vouchers) but the delivery would be left up to the market, to independent schools.
This is important because incentivising private providers to build near low income areas or take over failing public schools is a corollary to vouchers. Good schools are an essential component to building good neighbourhoods. We already have examples in troubled neighbourhoods of independent schools that have done well.
School vouchers are certificates of government funding for a student at a school chosen by the student or student’s parents. In other words vouchers function like a government scholarship, one based on the constitutional right of every child to be given access to a quality primary education. This differs slightly from charter schools which are government-funded but privately run schools which as earlier examples show exist in some form and show the promise of opening up the education system to willing market players.
As Milton Friedman made clear, voucher schools compete for students with non-voucher schools. The resulting competition causes non-voucher schools to improve the quality of the education they offer so as not to lose students. A rising tide of improving education services lifts all boats.
The Leadership College in Manenberg, an independent no fee school which is 60% funded by the Provincial department in the Western Cape and 40% funded by donations from local businesses achieved a 92% pass rate in 2016 and 67% bachelor passes. An astonishing 68 of the 71 distinctions in that area came from the school. Yes, the school itself is selective, recruiting from 14 feeder schools in the area but that in and of itself does not discount the fact that this was all done on a shoestring budget (in 2017 the school was in danger of eviction after rents soared) by committed local teachers who were tired of the public system.
A school in Orange Farm, Johannesburg, which is not selective, Isikhumbuzo Secondary, had a pass rate of 93.9% in 2014 (passing 46 out of 49 matrics) despite having class sizes of 40+. The pass rate easily beat the Gauteng average of 84.7%. The school receives subsidies from the Gauteng Education Department.
Another promising example is Molo Mhlaba in Khayelitsha, a self-described Pan African School for Girls that borrows from the Montessori model and has a strong emphasis on science and maths, especially in robotics and coding. The school charges R400 per month and has 38 girls between the ages of 3 and 6 and more impressively has a waiting list of 13. Founders, Athabile Masola and Rethabile Sonibare, plan to introduce a next aged cohort of girls between the ages of 6 and 9 in 2019. Imagine the possibilities if more low-income parents could choose through the voucher system to send their children there. Judging by the waiting list, clearly they are doing something right.
Lastly, I think it is important to note that in Gauteng one in four schools are already low fee independent schools educating about 10% of pupils in the province, many of whom are the children of black parents who have risen into the middle class (65% of the black middle class send their children to former model C schools or low fee independent schools).
If low fee independent schools are good enough for the wealthy and especially the middle class who sacrifice financially, would they not be good enough for low income families?
Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and aspiring economist.