Private school for less

2013-08-11 14:00

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They are not fancy. The fees are quite low, but education standards are high. Is this the future for your child? Sipho Masondo went back to school.

Just the mention of a “private school” elicits mental images of imposing, architecturally marvellous buildings, magnificent green sports fields – and astronomical fees, running into the hundreds of thousands.

But Meridian Pretoria is an entirely different beast. It’s a low-fee private school in Pretoria’s East Lynne suburb.

Its double-storey building, which the school is renting from Transnet, is unassuming.

There’s no swimming pool, no squash court, not even a sliver of Astroturf – just a single sports field which is used interchangeably for rugby and soccer.

Another huge open space is used by the netball team.

But upon entering a classroom, you begin to realise this is no government school.

All classes are equipped with fire extinguishers. There is an intercom in each class, which administrators use for urgent announcements.

The classrooms also have projectors, which teachers connect to their laptops to help deliver their lessons.

It’s the class sizes, though, that prove Meridian is something entirely different: at most, there are about 30 children in a single class.

The smallest classes consist of just 13 pupils.

The largest classes are for languages – English and Afrikaans.

Welcome to a low-fee private school: a fairly new concept in South Africa, but one the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) believes could fill a crucial gap in our education system.

The CDE released a report this week in which it examined the role of low-fee private schools and an entirely different model, “contract schools”.

The latter, the CDE’s Ann Bernstein explains, is a “missing sector” on the South African education landscape.

Contract schools are public bodies managed by private operators who get government – and therefore taxpayer – money “in return for specified performance outputs”, Bernstein says.

Low-fee private schools, which the CDE says is a global phenomenon, have a growing presence among the 3?500 independent schools in the country.

City Press shadowed a matric class at Meridian this week.

By 7.30am, 18-year-old Omphile Matsei is already seated, ready for his life orientation class. He and all his classmates haul out their tablets and get down to business. The grade 10s, 11s and 12s at Meridian don’t carry books – their textbooks have been loaded on to their tablets.

The tablet is one of the main reasons Matsei would not trade his school for anything. “They offer tablets as opposed to hard copy books. The tablet offers a different number of media, including voice, video and reading.

“We also have access to Wi-Fi and can download more material. If we are not sure about something, we can quickly Google it while the teacher is teaching. How cool is that?”

At about 12.15pm, Matsei heads off to the maths class, which has about 20 pupils. He struggles with the subject, but that’s the least of his worries. “We have extra classes every day after school,” he says. “Teachers also have to spend another hour after school to assist people like myself.”

At R1?700 per month, Matsei says, “I definitely think I am getting my money’s worth.”

Grade 10s and 11s also pay R1?700 per month. Grade 8s and 9s pay about R1?320 per month.

Meridian is affiliated to the large Curro group, with low-fee private schools in Pinelands, Cape Town and Durban, as well as another school under construction in North West.

The group plans to build at least two low-fee private schools every year.

Back at Meridian, parents are excited by Curro’s brand of schooling.

Martha Dlamini says since her son Nhlanhla (16) joined Meridian he has improved tremendously. “This school is very good. He has improved and I’m very happy,” she says. “I don’t regret taking him out of the other (public) school. He will do his matric here. He has improved his science and maths.”

Headmaster Sagren Munsami says low-fee private schools keep costs down by focusing on education and spending less on sports and extramural activities.

Dr Chris van der Merwe, who founded the Curro brand, says: “We try to keep the Meridian brand very affordable. The common message we are sending is that private schooling can be affordable to all middle class parents.”

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