We cannot have a discussion about education without acknowledging how disadvantaged black South Africa is and how inferior education was under the Bantu Education Act of 1953.
The ability of the government, following 1994, to satisfy the educational needs of the majority of South Africans has fallen short, for various reasons. There is the belief in some quarters that education is in a real crisis. We are regularly ranked as one of the worst performing systems globally.
Building a new education system is very complex. We want the best for our children. We want to give them access to the tools to create lives that build on ours. But, there are limitations both for the individual and for government. Out of this, there has been, especially in the last decade, a proliferation of private/independent schools across the country.
An early entrant into the independent school sector is ADvTECH Group which was founded in 1978 and initially focused on IT training. In the words of CEO Roy Douglas, the change came about as follows, “As South Africa’s transition dawned, it was education that would be a key factor in the ‘new’ South Africa’s success. In the early 1990s, ADvTECH started moving from technical systems training to providing educational opportunities. After years of growth and development, the education division is split between schools and tertiary.”
ADvTECH is listed on the JSE and has a number of school brands at primary- and high school level. It targets different parts of society with offerings differing based on price, curriculum, ethos, etc. For example, Douglas says, “Crawford Schools are known for their modern and progressive approach, Trinityhouse is known for their more traditional, strong Christian ethos and Abbotts College is known for its inclusive, caring and focused environment.”
The other JSE-listed organisation, Curro Holdings, was established in 1998. CEO Andries Greyling says, “Curro’s mission is to make quality independent school education accessible to more learners. To make this possible, Curro’s offering extends across various school models in order to appeal to a broad audience. These school models differ in subject offering, Grade 12 final exam certificate offering (IEB vs NSC), co-curricular offering, and fees.”
Interestingly, Curro attempted to acquire ADvTECH in 2015 but the deal was rejected by the board. Greyling does say that “It’s important to note that Curro and ADvTech aren’t speaking to the same markets. There is ample opportunity to co-exist in the private education sector in South Africa. For every independent school which is brought into existence, the government saves between R120m and R200m on infrastructure, and thereafter about R20m to R40m per year in running expenses.”
This is reiterated by Douglas, who says, “ADvTECH values competition as we consider it good for both the industry and consumers. An increase in competitors improves the education sector, the quality and relevance of offerings for everyone.”
In more recent years, other schools have come to the fore, including SPARK Schools, Nova Pioneer and Future Nation. A key discussion point is how private school fees tend to be much higher than the public schools, making them beyond the reach of the majority of parents in the country.
SPARK Schools was established by Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison in 2011, the idea for which was sparked while the pair were pursuing their MBAs at Gordon Institute of Business Science.
Brewer says, “We wanted to create schools we would be proud and confident enough to send our own children to. SPARK Schools aims to provide a model that is affordable and produces internationally competitive scholars. In 2018, our fees will be R21 000 per annum. Our school fees are based on government's total cost to educate a child.”
The newest kid on the block is Future Nation Schools, which falls under Dr Judy Dlamini and Sizwe Nxasana’s Sifiso Learning Group. Their aim is “to meaningfully contribute to the African education landscape and spearhead the African education revolution.”
They say further that “our strategic intent is to produce future African leaders who are passionate, excel in what they do, are ready for the 21st century and are confident in themselves. Our vision is to build a network of affordable private schools across South Africa, and the rest of Africa, that offers excellent education which is characterised by student-centred learning, high academic standards, problem-solving skills, a focus on applied research and development (including project-based teaching and learning), innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and African studies.”
A critical consideration is the curriculum and how it is developed. Brewer of SPARK Schools says, “We are a disruptor, offering a model and culture of education that is innovative and different from the independent education institutions that South Africans have come to know. Our curriculum, which encompasses South African Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS), is based on dynamic and individualised teaching, which ensures that scholars are learning the curriculum in new ways. In Maths classes, students are taught according to Scholastic’s PR1ME curriculum, which is based upon the rigorous Maths standards of Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and Hong Kong. In literacy, students’ progress through reading and writing according to criterion scales based on Britain’s literacy standards.”
ADvTECH’s approach is determined by a central academic team working with the various brands to support and develop the academic strategy. Douglas of the ADvTECH Group explains, “This team has a programme of quality management for all academic processes, which includes exploration and implementation of effective teaching methodologies. Through these initiatives we create a space for meaningful and purposeful learning. For example, we integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 and South African Development Plan 2030 into the curriculum, to engage our students at a young age to be innovative, creative and articulate solutions to global problems, such as gender equality or poverty. Another is our focus on global competencies, through our Core Skills Continuum, which empowers our students with skills needed in the developing fourth industrial revolution of robotic process automation.
With Curro, the approach is similar in that the internal curriculum management and delivery centre both ensure that teachers are constantly being upskilled with professional development courses while also constantly researching on best practice to ensure the CAPS curriculum continues to better prepare learners. For example, Greyling explains that “Curro’s Mathematics allows for a more focused and problem-solving approach while the Science and Technology curriculum not only focuses on 21st-century technology but also on nanotechnology and a study of the Da Vinci inventions.”
Meanwhile, Future Nation Schools at preschool level use the Montessori teaching model and, from Grade R, “start adding in elements of project-based learning, which is the perfect complement to Montessori. Children now start developing more tools to pursue work that interests and engages them. Having already learnt to work independently and purposefully in preschool, this transition happens a lot more smoothly than when entering a traditional schooling environment.”
The future of education
While Future Nation Schools is in the beginning of its journey, it has five schools, all in Joburg: two full campuses up to Grade 8 with three satellite preschools that feed into the primary and high school.
ADvTECH has been focused on South Africa both at school and tertiary level but has started expanding across the continent. It has also been paying attention to its mid-fee Academies brand, with projects like Copperleaf College and Foundershill.
Spark continues to do what it is doing with the overall vision being for South Africa to lead global education.
And finally, Curro is on a major school drive. Greyling says, “There are 12.5 million learners in South Africa, and three million of them can afford Curro’s offering. The brand currently accommodates around 42 500 learners and would like to increase this to 100 000 by 2020. We started 2017 with 127 schools, compared to 110 schools at the beginning of 2016 – a 15% increase, and are aiming for 200 schools by end of 2021.
This is but a snapshot of the growing number of independent schools in the country. There is a place for each of them, as long as they're able to remain relevant, provide the necessary education and not price themselves out of the market or cater to a small niche. At the same time, there is a semblance of hope for the children of South Africa.
We are regularly ranked as one of the worst performing systems globally.
“We wanted to create schools we would be proud and confident enough to send our own children to.”