Do your homework

Before enrolling your child into a private school in South Africa, you should do your homework.

They have mushroomed in the past few years and while many deliver on their promise to improve on government-level resources – others leave much to be desired.

South African education statistics, published by the Department of Basic Education in 2015, show that in 2013 a total of 513 804 pupils were enrolled in private schools.

The Eastern Cape had the fourth highest number of private schools with 56 473 pupils enrolled in 171 independent schools.

John Luis – head of academics at ADvTECH Schools, which runs 91 private schools across South Africa – said just as with public schools, quality and performance vary from school to school. He stressed that just because the school is private doesn’t mean it is automatically the best choice for your child.

Luis said the philosophies, approaches and capacities of private schools vary so widely that a school should be selected only after careful consideration of whether the specific needs of the child match a specific potential school.

“Additionally, parents should scrutinise promises against track record. But the first thing is to make sure that the overall ethos of the school is a good match to the family and the child,” he says.

“When visiting schools, which is a non-negotiable part of the process of selection, parents should observe the learners and their interactions among each other and with teachers. One should sense that the environment is safe and stimulating and that the school has all the resources and facilities one expects from an environment in which academic excellence can become possible.”

Provincial education spokesman Malibongwe Mtima said before an independent school is registered with the department, a team goes out to inspect the premises to make sure they are conducive to teaching and learning, and the curriculum is also checked to see if it complies.

“The school is then issued with a registration certificate, which should be clearly visible in the foyer or the principal’s office,” he said.

“The certificate should have the school’s registration number, the grades for which the institution is registered and approved site of delivery or physical address.

“If parents are in doubt, they can contact the department to check if the school is registered.”

Trudie Gilmore, assistant general manager at ADvTECH Junior Colleges, said choosing a private preschool should be done with equal care, including:

lStart the search at least one school year prior to attending, given that many schools take applications as early as just after a child’s birth;

lOrganise a viewing of each potential school identified;

lAssess a preschool’s discipline policies and philosophy or model for dealing with challenging behaviour;

lChoose a programme as most preschools offer both half-day and full-day programmes; and

lAssess the quality of the child’s relationships with staff, and the home-to-school connections.

“The choices can be overwhelming, the deadlines are impossibly early and the pressure to get it right is huge. You can attend an open day or expo to hear about the philosophy and admission process.

“You can view the school while classes are in session and we recommend that you bring your child to spend time in the classroom.

“Pay close attention to the language used in the classroom and the friendliness of the staff.

“View a few different classrooms while school is in session to see how the teachers interact with the children. Be ready with a notebook and bring a list of questions.”

For primary and high schools, Crawford College Sandton principal Morag Rees advises parents to seek a school that provides meaningful learning opportunities and a solid foundation for further study opportunities.

Other things to consider are the culture of the school with regard to academics and cultural activities, travelling distance between school and home, whether or not the school’s teaching ethos is aligned with what the parents expect, the school’s track record and the subject choices on offer.

A senior lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s education faculty, Dr Shervani Pillay, said the main difference between public and private schools lay in the conditions in which the curriculum was offered.

“These conditions act as either enablers or obstacles to the education that a particular school is able to provide and what learners are able to enjoy or not.

“Private schools have between 19 to 25 pupils in a class, the numbers in some classes are even lower.

“In addition to that, children who attend private schools typically come from middle- or upper middle-class families. This means that they arrive with a significant amount of cultural capital – for example they are fairly conversant in the language of instruction, they are well fed and have access to resources such as the internet and extra tutors,” she said, adding that public schools that relied on government subsidies were often characterised by poor infrastructure, lack of specialist teachers and staff shortages.

“Some public schools are well resourced and the pupils who attend them also come from middle-class to upper middle-class homes and so the above applies to them as well.

“However, it is the public schools who rely solely on government subsidies that give us pause for thought. Although these schools have well qualified and hard working teachers, the conditions under which they work must often challenge their commitment and ability to give of their best.

“Classrooms are often crowded with between 60 to 100 in a class. Sometimes these classes are multigrade and multilingual with a single teacher. In addition to these structural challenges, pupils often come from home environments where parents are unemployed or low income earners, so poverty and all its consequences and effects are brought into the classroom, and this impacts on learning and success.”

In a report on private schools which appeared in the Dispatch in 2015, Wits School of Public and Development Management head Professor Graeme Bloch said many parents opted for private schooling because of the issues currently crippling the public education system, although he warned that not all independent schools were better.

“It just depends on which school it is,” Bloch had said then. “And costs can be very high for independent schools, although some are low-fee.”

2017 fees for two popular Eastern Cape private schools range from R46810 a year to R74832 for a Grade 1 day pupil, while at another school a Grade 4 boarder could cost R125250 annually, with the price increasing to R203190 by Grade 12.

With the current economic climate, many parents have to make financial sacrifices to send their children to private schools.

Luis urged parents to ensure that their sacrifice is not a blind one.

He concluded: “A cookie-cutter education – even at a private school – is not desirable. Parents should ensure that the school will tailor its offering to take into account each child’s uniqueness, that it is an enabling environment, that it encourages relationship building and that it is optimally conducive to learning and development.”
— zisandan@dispatch.co.za

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