Iain Byrne, Amnesty International

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

Nelson Mandela

Education is arguably the most important factor in determining our life chances. Without access to decent quality education, a young person is most unlikely to fulfil their potential. However, securing quality education for all is not just a matter of social and economic development. It is also a fundamental human right enshrined in many constitutions, national laws, and regional and international treaties. The right of every child to free and compulsory primary education is so important that it is an immediate obligation for those states that have ratified the relevant treaties guaranteeing its enjoyment, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This includes South Africa, which has also enshrined the right to education for all in its Constitution. In a country where there are 16 million learners out of a population of 56 million, with numbers increasing rapidly every day in certain provinces due to internal and external migration — 38000 additional grade 1s entered Gauteng last year alone resulting in some cases in 10 applicants for every place — the scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated. Yet by any measure South Africa is failing millions of its school children.

Poor outcomes and increasing inequality

Despite a greater per cent of its budget spent on education than either the US, Germany or the UK, South Africa has some of the poorest educational outcomes, ranking near the bottom of all middle-income countries as well as its regional peers, as shown by the following infographic:

These overall poor outcomes in key areas such as literacy and numeracy mask increasing social and economic inequality both between and within South Africa’s nine provinces. Children in poorer township schools fare much worse, and are more likely to drop out of education, than those attending wealthier schools.

Some provinces such as Limpopo and Eastern Cape continue to be underperforming and under-resourced, with ‘mud schools’ still existing in many rural locations. These often lack basic facilities such as sanitation. 44% of schools still use pit toilets, which as well as being unsanitary, are highly dangerous. Here is a typical example of a mud school:

Problems range from asbestos in old school buildings to lack of maintenance of public township schools, with some not even having enough basic equipment such as desks, chairs and chalk. These problems are often magnified by delays in delivering sufficient teaching and learning materials to schools. One example that typifies this situation was the persistent failure of the Limpopo education department to deliver enough textbooks to public schools — a problem so serious that it ended up at the Supreme Court of Appeal.

One of the factors enhancing stratification is the way that state schools are funded. Unlike the vast majority of countries 40 per cent of public primary and secondary schools are able to charge fees enabling them to generate additional resources such as recruiting more teacher (thereby reducing class sizes) and providing new equipment The remaining schools rely solely on state funding whilst at the same time tending to serve poorer communities who are often unable to generate additional resources through fundraising. The result is an increasing inequality gap between fee and no fee schools.

It should be emphasised that charging pupils to attend primary school is contrary to South Africa’s constitutional duty to guarantee free primary education for all who need it — a fact that has been condemned by UN bodies such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The current annual average cost to send a child to a public primary or high school is R 32000 (US$ 2600). This includes factoring in other ‘hidden’ costs such as uniforms, stationery, books and transport, which means that, given that over 30 million are living in poverty and 13.8 million in extreme poverty, (i.e. living on less than R441 (US$37) per month), millions of poor South African families access to affordable public education remains a distant dream. Even where exemptions for school fees are granted many of these costs are being passed onto schools, directly eating into their budgets.

The country’s General Household Survey in 2017 found that nearly 19% of people aged 7 to 18 cited “no money for school fees” as the main reason for not attending an education institution.

This economic and social inequality runs through the education system all the way to the tertiary level, as evidenced by the longstanding ‘fees must fall’ protests across the country, and the fact that less than 12% of black students end up graduating. The majority of those students who do drop out at the tertiary level come from poorer households .

Apartheid continues to loom large

In addition to a highly stratified society — racially and economically — the legacy of apartheid continues to loom large despite formally ending over two decades ago. Under that system the country was split into 19 education departments — Kwa Zulu Natal alone had 9 departments; the Eastern Cape had 41 and is currently trying to reduce from 23 to 12– with the result that provinces have struggled to adjust with the subsequent merged responsibilities. Those education systems inherited from previous Bantustan entities have found it particularly hard to adjust. Although Bantu education opened up access for black children, it failed to deliver on quality and this legacy — high enrolment rates but poor outcomes — continues to this day. 90% of poor people are black despite only accounting for just under 80% of the population. 80% of the population (predominantly black) own no wealth at all, compared to 10% of all South Africans (mainly white) who own 90% of national wealth.

In some cases, post-apartheid reforms have not necessarily translated into improved outcomes. For instance, bringing teacher training into the university system was designed to ensure greater consistency; however, it has also led to higher drop-out rates of students. Schools during the apartheid era tended to be subjected to extremely rigorous (some would characterise it as draconian) inspection regimes with teachers feeling targeted and undermined. Consequently, there is a strong antipathy to inspection which has resulted in very limited monitoring in contrast to other sectors, such as health.

On a recent trip to the country to examine the state of the right to education we heard from multiple sources that there is a general perception that the public sector is generally of low quality and inefficient in delivering services whether in education, health or social care. Problems are exacerbated by insufficient accountability to address issues such as corruption.

The private sector fills the gap but serious questions remain

In this context of perceived crisis in the country’s education system, it is unsurprising that many lower income parents are turning towards the private sector, and in particular to so-called ‘low fee schools’‘. These institutions charge a daily or weekly fee which is supposed to be affordable for poorer families. They are often able to keep costs low whilst also generating a return for investors by using low cost materials, paying low qualified teachers less, and operating to scale. Teaching can often involve a highly scripted model through the use of daily downloads to IT tablets. Whilst some have praised its efficiency, others have criticised the lack of pedagogical input.

We were told by both parents using such schools and observers that low fee schools can be “big on promises and short on delivery” often failing to provide an enriched education. Yet despite the potential risks, including economic affordability, many poor parents are abandoning public schools in townships in favour of the private sector. In so doing parents voice concerns not just about the delivery of decent public education but also about safety, gender violence, and low teacher morale.

There have been private schools in South Africa for nearly 200 years. Many of them are elite institutions with strong religious foundations charging in some cases over R230000 (US$ 19315) per year. The presence of such schools is in line with international human rights law and the South African Constitution which both recognise the freedom to establish and run non-state academic institutions, provided they are properly regulated and conform to certain minimum teaching and employment standards. However, the past decade has seen a shift both in terms of the numbers and types of providers.

Although the private sector is still relatively small at 4.4% of total provision, it is growing fast as people lose faith in the public sector. In the first decade of the new millennium the independent sector grew by 75.9% in terms of enrolments. Most of this growth is taking place in the wealthiest provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape whilst poorer regions such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape are neglected, leading to even greater inequality.

This shift towards the private sector in education is not unique to South Africa. Across Africa and beyond — India, the US — low fee chains have been springing up with the purported aim of providing affordable quality education for poor children. This trend is reflected in the 2030 agenda process in so far as it envisages a role for the private sector in assisting with the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, including no. 4 on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

For the companies, there is serious money to be made — one of the leading South African providers, Curro Holdings (which is owned by a number of institutional investment companies), currently provides education to approximately 42,000 learners in 110 schools in Namibia and South Africa with plans to have 500 schools in the latter by 2030. Its CEO recently reported that it has increased pupil numbers by 31 per cent since 2012 with revenue and earnings up 48% and 83% respectively. The company is looking at an operating margin of up to 40% in the medium term whilst also entering the higher education sector. Is it any wonder that private education stocks are some of the fastest growing on the Johannesburg stock exchange?

Yet serious questions remain about both the methods and quality of some of these commercial providers as well as the model more generally. Some of the main concerns mirror those of the sector in other countries, including the employment of low paid and under-qualified teachers accompanied by an over reliance on technology scripted model, at the expense of skilled quality teaching. There has even been evidence of racial discrimination which is particularly disturbing given the history of South Africa.

Another growing trend is public-private partnerships — a model in use for several decades in Western countries but now being actively promoted in developing countries. In South Africa so-called ‘collaboration schools’ are being piloted in the country’s second wealthiest province, the Western Cape, involving a partnership between the provincial education department and the UK chain Ark, based on the UK academies model. However, there have been accusations that the process has not been accompanied by sufficient transparency, risks placing too much power in the hands of the private provider, and may not even be legal. Many are also sceptical whether such partnerships will actually deliver better education, citing experiences in other countries which have resulted in increasing job insecurity for teachers and not necessarily better outcomes for pupils.

This recent trend towards privatization must be seen against a backdrop of the systemic education challenges South Africa faces. However, whatever the many constraints — historic, economic or social — the country continues to face, the South African government is obliged to ensure every child has access to a decent affordable education and that every school delivers education that is fit for purpose. This includes effective regulation of all schools — both public and private.

Questions for the way forward?

The current state of education in South Africa poses a number of fundamental questions:

· How best should the government meet the ever-increasing demand for education?

· After a period of relative upheaval — the national curriculum has had three major changes in 20 years with four education Ministers in the same period — can there be more stability?

· Can the tension between greater choice for parents and pupils and the need to maintain social cohesion be reconciled?

· Can the increasing inequality gap both between and within provinces be reversed? Can ‘mud schools’ and pit latrines finally be done away with?

· How much should schools rely on technology as ‘paperless’ state schools start to be rolled out?

However, perhaps one of the biggest questions is whether an increasing reliance on the private sector, particularly large-scale commercial providers, is the answer?

Amnesty Insights

Investigating human rights issues in a fast-changing world

Amnesty Global Insights

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Insights from Amnesty International on global human rights issues | business, technology, arms, death penalty, refugees & ESC rights

Amnesty Insights

Investigating human rights issues in a fast-changing world

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