South African public schools; the good, the bad, the best. Part one


Talk given at the Tshikululu/IQ business Serious Social investing Conference, April 2014, GIBS, Johannesburg


Why do public schools even matter? Isn’t privatisation the answer to absolutely everything? Why are we bothering with a presentation on public schools at this conference?


The first answer is numbers: in South Africa in 2013 there were 12 million learners in public schools and half a million in independent schools. At matric level, there were 6 600 state schools whose learners wrote matric. Independent schools writing matric comprised 494 independent schools writing the state matric exam, and 185 schools writing the Independent Examination Board exam, a total of 679 schools. Despite the enormous increase in enrolment in independent schools by percentage, this percentage increase comes off a low base. It is the state schools who fill our universities, our FET colleges and our unemployment queues. It is learners in state schools who shape our current and future reality.


The second answer to the question of why it’s worth even discussing state schools, is the power of debate in shaping educational reality. If a gathering such as ours discusses the JSE, the JSE will go about its business more or less unperturbed. The Rand will certainly not rise or fall based on our deliberations here.


Education is different. Discussions here, and discussions like today’s, whether they occur in supermarket queues, in taxis or around dinner tables, have an effect. Without meaning to, we can change the mind of a youngster who might have chosen teaching as a vocation, or demoralise an experienced teacher. We can convince a family who really can’t afford the fees, that an expensive private school is the only responsible choice they can make for their child. We can even convince parents in Northwest that the education their children receive is so useless anyway, it doesn’t matter if they keep their children out of school for 3 months to make a political point.


It is essential to include what is educationally good in South Africa, in the public discourse, alongside highlighting the bad.


So I am going to start this afternoon’s presentation by talking about the best South African public schooling has to offer. Because this small part of the system is good, but also fragile. If we don’t see the excellent public schools, if we don’t acknowledge them, partner with them and protect them, we might lose them. Like wetlands.


We often don’t know that the wetland is there until the streams are drained, the birds are gone, and the belated writ is served on the developers. And by that time, it’s usually too late. I would like to sound a very loud early warning, so that we don’t wake up one morning and discover that the wetlands of the South African education system, the excellent suburban state schools, have vanished.


The very best of the suburban state schools have feeder streams flowing into them from lots of different places, and families with a very wide range of resources, or lack of resources. These streams ensure an extraordinary level of diversity, not just geographic, language, racial and religious, but also economic, because of the state exemption system. The South African Schools Act requires that parents earning less than 10 times the school fees should be entirely exempt from fees, and parents earning less than 30 times the fees should be partially exempt.


Of course, applying this system rigidly would kill a good school quite quickly. But many of the parents at the good state schools understand the importance of fees, because they see with their eyes the facilities, and the additional teachers, paid for with their fees. Around 80% of the fees paid at the good state schools go towards the salaries of additional teachers. An astute principal will march the Governing Body teachers off the stage at every parent assembly, to make this point.


Many parents at these schools who are technically, legally, fee-exempt, nevertheless pay what they can. So you have a combination of parents who pay nothing, parents who pay something, and the majority of parents paying in full. What this adds up to is a rather astounding R12.2 billion in fees paid last year, money which employs an equally astounding 37 000 teachers. If this was a business sector, with that level of investment, that level of job creation, and that level of equity, we’d be falling over ourselves to protect it. I say ‘that level of equity’ advisedly. In the former model C schools, 40% of the learners are black. This is not a white enclave.


Let’s put these figures in a business context. Last year the Industrial Development Corporation approved R13 billion to save 4 000 jobs and create 20 000. The fee-paying school sector is creating more jobs than this, for less outlay, with no taxpayers money involved, and no donor money either.


I made the point that the model C schools were not a white enclave. Although they provide a thoroughly middle-class education, they are not a middle class enclave either.


Applied with discernment, discretion, and also with some compassion, the exemption system ensures that full and partial exemptions include in the learner body a wide socio-economic diversity, with up to 30% of families receiving a full or partial exemption. This system offers a series of trapdoors, rope ladders, bridges, to get some of the poorest South African learners into an excellent middle class education.


Research from the United States[1] shows that for poorer learners, they do best in a school where poor learners make up from 10 – 25% of  all learners.


Research also shows that the better-off learners benefit from a diverse school. In India, concerns about both social cohesion and equity prompted new legislation requiring all private schools, at every level, to set aside 25% of their places for learners from economically weaker sectors. These learners are funded by the state at the level of expenditure per pupil in state schools. Research shows that well-off learners in this system, are more likely to volunteer for charity and be generous, less likely to discriminate against poorer children, and have more egalitarian views[2].


Concern about social cohesion growing in or being destroyed by the prevailing schooling system, is not limited to developing countries. In England, the majority of the roughly 18% of learners who drop out of the school system aged 16, come from poorer families and inadequate schools. So a lottery system is being considered, to make the allocation of places in good state schools more equitable.



Diversity, equity and social cohesion happen as a matter of course in  the excellent state schools. We should have platoons of bureaucrats from both developed and developing countries visiting us to see how it’s done.


Poorer learners in these schools are integrated into a thoroughly middle class environment. Wealthier learners work alongside not just one or two, but substantial numbers of their peers who might be heads of household, who travel to school by taxi ,who never go away on holiday, who don’t bring lunch to school because nobody at home has lunch.


How is this achieved and, most important, sustained? By a range of partnerships. The first partnership is parent to parent. The fees for the fee-paying state schools are set at an annual parents meeting. The fees at the excellent state schools must be set at a level that can accommodate up to 30% of learners on full or partial bursaries. The shortfall is not made up by state or by donors. It comes directly from fees paid by fee-paying parents.


The next level of partnership is with the state. The bulk of teachers are paid by the state. The Governing Body teachers could not run the school on their own. Nor could the state-paid teachers. It’s a partnership.


What makes this system fragile? Misperceptions on the part of state, parents, public, even civil society. The state does not always appear to have a good grasp of the ratios and relationships that ensure sustainable, excellent education. When a state school is doing well, the local district often succumbs to the temptation to try to extend this benefit to larger numbers, particularly to larger numbers of learners on exemption, in the mistaken belief that more is more. So the ratio between learners, and resources ranging from teachers to textbooks, computers, playing fields, toilets, is pushed out of shape. It’s a very delicate balance. Too few learners on exemption, and desirable levels of diversity are reduced. Too many, and the whole system becomes unsustainable.


Parental misperceptions abound, stemming directly from our toxic educational discourse. Parents are sucked in to the private/good, state/bad mantra. I once saw a woman at a Parktown High School for Girls open day burst into tears. “I feel” she said “as if a big rock has rolled off my back. I just didn’t know there was a school like this, charging fees like this.” Why didn’t she know? Why don’t we shout the praises of these schools from the rooftops? Is it because this model wasn’t designed by anybody, it just grew? Because it doesn’t have a zippy label? Because it’s not based on something imported from elsewhere? I have no answer. Perhaps in the discussion time we can come up with some answers together.


I do know that labels matter. The civil society debate which criticises the concept of elite schools, lumps, for reasons which defy logic, top state schools charging fees around R30 000 per year, with top independent schools which charge anything from R100 000 to a quarter of a million per year. And that’s just the fees. When the label ”elite” is applied so freely, it makes the state schools vulnerable. I don’t understand why the same organisations which take the government to court for not fulfilling its constitutional educational responsibilities, want to shift more power from the hands of parents to that same government at its absolutely weakest and most inefficient level, which is the education district level. Civil society bodies such as section 27 and Equal Education seem to share with the state, attitudes ranging from ambivalence to downright hostility to the good state schools. This I also find hard to understand.


Labels matter in the public discourse, particularly when it comes to criteria for good schools. Why isn’t diversity one of the criteria included when we assess whether a school is suitable for our children? The world out there is a diverse place. Anybody who is to take a leadership position anywhere in the world will have to deal with diversity of religion, language, that much abused word culture. Here in South Africa, at the good state schools, confidence across a complex range of diversities comes with the territory. These schools are training the leaders we need for the twenty-first century at home in South Africa, and across the globe. Can we please label, recognise and celebrate this?



These schools feed our entire education system, providing teachers who understand how to teach larger multi-lingual classes, learners of all races who have an education enabling them to do well at university, and a rich, diverse and democratic educational context for the next generation of leaders for our young democracy.


The system that supports them is both complex and fragile. They are governed by parents and by the Department of Basic Education, supported by taxpayers and fee-payers: different interest groups who can work together and strengthen the system, or oppose one another and weaken it.



I believe we have a unique model here, something that goes beyond just offering a good education at a more modest price than the elite private schools. When South African state schools get it right, they achieve something that no-one else on the planet achieves in exactly the same way.


But this model goes largely unsung. We don’t study it, we don’t celebrate it, we don’t fund it as a CSI initiative. And so, this system is vulnerable.


So much for the best of the best. What about the rest? How successfully is the state education system as a whole overcoming the problems of the past, and are the solutions to those problems moving us in the right direction? ( continued in part 2)


[1] Berliner, DC (2013) Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth. Teachers College Recors 115 (12)


[3] South African Institute of Race Relations survey 1994/1995

[4] Linda Chisholm (2010) The debate about re-opening Teacher Education Colleges. Focus: Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation (56) 14 – 20

[5] Cynthia Kros (2010) The seeds of Separate Development; Origins of Bantu Education. Unisa Press. Pretoria.

[6] South African Institute of Race Relations: 2013 survey

[7] National Senior Certificate Examination Technical Report

[8] Berliner, DC (2013); Effects of Inequality and poverty vs Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth. Teacher’s College Record, 15 (12).

[9] Cameron,E (2014) Justice; A Personal Account.Cape Town. Tafelberg.

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