SPARK SCHOOLS BRIDGE THE FI­NAN­CIAL GAP

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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.”

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