Are charter schools on the horizon in the Western Cape?

The Western Cape Schools Amendment Bill, nearing the end of its consultation phase, is a dangerous step toward US-style “charter

Few people in South Africa would say the public school system is working well, especially for impoverished people. As a result, positive new initiatives must be welcomed.

Yet, the Western Cape Schools Amendment Bill, nearing the end of its consultation phase, is a dangerous step toward US-style “charter schools” – privately run, mostly publicly funded institutions that enjoy considerable autonomy over curricula and hiring.

Western Cape education MEC Debbie Schäfer’s bill envisions donors and “operating partners” driving the establishment of “donor-funded public schools” and “collaboration schools”.

A new Western Cape Schools Evaluation Authority will report to the MEC, and collect and publicise metrics to promote accountability and competition among schools.
However, any attempt to reform public schooling must recognise two vital points. Firstly, market models have infiltrated public systems around the world, and most observers believe they increase inequality, not reduce it.

They feed off the anxieties of the middle class and schooling’s failure to provide social mobility for impoverished people. But instead of addressing the continuation of de facto class-racial segregation, and other structural issues, they offer apparently common-sense solutions including choice, competition and business expertise.
Secondly, South Africa already has one of the most marketised education systems in the world. In the 1960s, almost all South African children attended their local school.

The vision of apartheid planners was to provide local schools for local populations in racially defined suburbs. Today, tens of thousands of children – black and white – travel to attend schools far from their own neighbourhoods.

But more important than labelling systems as either state- or market-centric is how the state and markets come together in practice. Education was not free during apartheid. Black parents, unlike most whites, were forced to pay school fees and other costs.  

Pretoria exerted a tight grip on education policy but allowed certain schools a lot of freedom. Unlike in many other parts of the world, South Africa never developed city-based local education authorities – for instance, school boards – to administer admissions.

That was because the system was divided by race. White schools, in particular, gained extraordinary power over admissions in comparison to schools in most other countries.

Tinkering with marketisation

In 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the National Party government devolved further power to white-only schools and encouraged them to charge fees and admit better-off black students.
Elected to power in 1994, the ANC came to believe that allowing affluent schools to charge fees would prevent the mass exodus of white children to private schools and free up state resources for poorer schools. Moreover, the devolution of power to schools by the apartheid government struck a chord with the liberation movement’s long-standing struggle for “people’s education”.

As a result, the post-apartheid government tinkered with an already marketised system instead of ending it. Unlike many Western countries, where quasi-markets increase competition within a publicly funded system, South Africa’s public education system includes both free and extremely expensive schools. In addition, Curro and ADvTECH corporations have opened dozens of new private schools.

The ability of parents to exercise choice over out-of-area schooling wins support from many groups: it allows a child living in a township to attend one of the city’s best schools, a talented rugby star to enter an elite Anglophone school on a scholarship, and a middle-class family to exit the public system altogether.

In addition, government has established more than two thirds of schools as “no-fee” schools. In political terms, the mix of commodification and decommodification seems to offer something for everyone. Almost all media commentary condemns the crisis in education. However, respondents in one national survey ranked education second in terms of their satisfaction with government performance (the report was called Local Matters by Struwig et al). More than 400,000 students now pass the matriculation exam every year.
Yet, as more people gained qualifications, and at higher levels, a matriculation pass certificate, a qualification that would have placed a person among the elite a few generations ago, is devalued to the extent that it might not even get a person an interview today.

A schooling system that works best for elites

The schooling system gives more qualifications to poorer students but still disproportionately channels affluent students into employment. Service-sector employers, who have come to replace manufacturing companies, for instance, might favour those with an English accent from a “multiracial” school. 

This is why we need to consider quality and equity across the education system, and not just ways to create a new tier of semi-private schools. Already, the extra money that no-fee schools receive from the state is a drop in the ocean compared to the fees charged at richer schools, which can amount to R30 000 or more per year per student.
Inequalities drive a musical chair-like process whereby affluent children tend to travel to more prestigious and better-resourced schools and leave empty desks to be filled by other learners. Despite – indeed, because of – the state’s efforts to create free schools for the poor, the resources of families are drawn up the system to end up, ironically, in formerly white schools.
No wonder education hasn’t fulfilled its promise to build a nonracial society. Post-apartheid reforms have led to the partial deracialisation of privilege but not to a fundamental reduction in inequality and not to the fundamental “de-whitening” of privilege.
In short, the schooling system is a connected system, whereby the actions of one school or one family affects others. It combines the state and market, although the former commonly takes the fall.

Proposals for “donor” and “collaboration” schools in Western Cape ride the wave of anti-state sentiment, but they are not the fresh initiatives their advocates suggest.

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