SPARK SCHOOLS BRIDGE THE FINANCIAL GAP
of education concerned her, she said, but also the amount of money the government was pouring into education wasn’t “translating into results that we want to see”.
At SPARK, students are performing at a grade level above their peers in government school, according to Brewer.
“When we talk about lowcost, we’re talking about government’s total cost to educate, because no one in the country is able to create the quality that we do and at our price point.”
The highest fees at a government school are about R45 000 per annum, which reflects favourably on the SPARK network.
However, if that is out of reach, there are other Isasa (Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa) schools that charge less than R1 000 monthly, said Montjane.
“As I always say, if a parent is paying a school fee in the public system, they often can find an independent school charging a similar fee,” he said.
Although a small slice of the pie, the independent schooling sector has raised red flags for Faranaaz Veriava, an advocate focused on education rights at SECTION27, a public interest law centre in Joburg.
In her research for a January 2014 publication commissioned by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law, Veriava found a case in which parents had to consent to the use of corporal punishment as a requirement for admission.
Although that is not indicative of all schools, Veriava said a close eye needs to be kept on the sector as a whole.
“In the low-fee private sector there’s a lot of movement now and we need to make sure that our legal framework moves with the times and with the current mushrooming of these schools,” she said. “Currently, it’s not. It’s far from it.”
There are other issues, she said, such as the removal of pupils when parents can no longer afford the fees – even if they are in the middle of the term. This is a concern because many of these networks run as for-profit entities. Last year, Curro generated more than R1.7 billion in revenue.
According to the Department of Basic Education, pupils at government schools are allowed to remain in class, even if the school is taking legal action against the parent for non-payment of fees.
For Veriava, there is simply no way that private education can be the answer for the education crisis. No matter how lowcost it is, there are those who are not provided for, she said.
“The solution for the crisis in public education is for our government to take the issues in historically disadvantaged schools seriously and improve education provisioning in those schools, improve management, ensure good quality teaching in those schools,” she said. “That is the solution, not private schooling.”
At the end of the school day, students at SPARK Bramley sit on the ground, waiting for their parents to pick them up.
They sit neatly in rows, a reflection of the SPARK education, which focuses on discipline and developing life skills, such as conflict resolution, that students can use at school and at home.
Students often bring these skills home and share them with their parents, Brewer said, which helps create a larger impact on society.
Pupils at the school come from a wide range of economic backgrounds, with some walking to school and others arriving in Range Rovers and taxis. At Bramley, the majority of the students are black.
“We’ve been very excited to see the diversity in our student body in terms of race and economic background,” Brewer said. “We think it’s a very powerful way to start change in the country.”
The network has grown rapidly in recent years. At SPARK Bramley, enrolment increased from 150 to 650 students in three years.
However, the critics remain sceptical and caution that all the money being poured into private schooling may be illspent.
“The biggest problem is the attention being given to privatisation as the magic bullet to solve problems of education, of access, of quality has really resulted in the neglect of the attention to needs and resources to improve public schools,” Vally said.
However, for the leaders, the staff and the families SPARK serves, they’re on board with its mission to disrupt the South African education landscape.
Pierre Aucamp, a coffee shop owner and father of a SPARK Bramley student, said the emphasis on life skills and quality of education makes SPARK the ideal choice for his 8-year-old son.
“They’re bridging that gap between people who can afford quality education and those who can’t, so it truly is an equaliser,” said Aucamp.
Brewer said change was possible and hopes the success she’s found with SPARK will inspire others.
For her, an idea she had at a business school has now led to a network of schools that serves 4 000 families, with plans to increase that number.
“When a country is faced with a national problem, don’t wait for government to sort it out,” she said.
“An average South African such as myself and the team together, a group of committed people, literally, can start changing a country.”