A private solution

2013-07-24 00:00

GOVERNMENT schooling has turned into a nightmare. Examination results worsen, literacy rates decline, there is a lack of interest in mathematics and science, larger education budgets don’t improve matters, and increasing numbers of pupils leave school as soon as they are able to escape.

Political parties make election promises about fixing the schools but nothing done so far has improved matters for pupils and their parents.

Given South Africa’s mass unemployment numbers, the future must look grim for pupils, as they face the prospect of joining the ranks of the estimated 7,9 million unemployed.

School, for some pupils, has become a way-station between classes, in which they have very little interest, and a life of unemployment. The bleakness of the situation must be difficult for them to deal with, especially if they conclude that what they are learning at school will be of little value in helping them find a job. The situation is not helped by teachers taking extended sick leave or leaving the profession because they can’t deal with unhappy pupils who spend their time disrupting classes and preventing other pupils from learning.

The solution is simple. All governments have to do is allow private providers to take over the provision of education and skills training. People with knowledge and skills should be encouraged to run training courses to pass on their accumulated knowledge and skills to young people.

Governments can purchase schooling and training for young people; they do not have to provide it. Teachers in government schools can become entrepreneurs, rent their schools and provide teaching services in competition with other schools. Laws and regulations that currently prohibit or inhibit such developments should be repealed.

Problems will melt away as competing entrepreneurs offer a wide range of learning options from which young people and their parents can choose. One of the most important characteristics of such a new education market will be that consumers will determine the nature of the product. Families will not only determine which institutions will teach their children, but also what they teach and how they teach.

Learning institutions will set the terms and conditions that will apply during training. Families will not control training but will influence the activities of the institutions by choosing to buy or not buy their services.

Private firms have a flexibility that governments don’t. They can specialise and cater for large or small niche markets, while governments are compelled to standardise. All young people have special educational needs as they are all different. Standardised schooling, curricula, teaching methods and learning environments cannot provide the variety that is essential to cater for their real needs. Pupils are squashed into a standardised schooling box designed for the mythical average student. Non-average pupils, the potential majority, suffer the consequences.

Contrary to general expectation, according to the E.G. West Centre at the UK’s Newcastle University, poor parents in difficult circumstances, use their meagre resources to purchase better alternatives for their children from schools that charge fees, rather than have their children attend government schools that charge no fee. The centre says: “Private schools for the poor have emerged in huge numbers in some of the most impoverished slums and villages in Africa. They cater for a majority of poor children and outperform government schools, for a fraction of the cost.” They found large numbers of small private schools in low-income areas in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and India.

In the absence of current constraints, a private market in education and skills transfers has the potential to develop the individual talents of every child under conditions of freedom and choice.

Given the necessary freedoms, the education of young people will become a worldwide competitive entrepreneurial industry, vying for the business of young customers and their parents, and utilising the remarkable technical aids and materials already available, and the even better aids and materials that will become available in a liberated education market.

It has been demonstrated in this country that it is not compulsion that impels people to study. Black South Africans were not subjected to compulsory schooling laws until relatively recently, yet many voluntarily educated and capable black people, many of whom attended private missionary schools, hold down jobs in every sphere of the economy and society. Opening up education to low-cost private schools run by educational entrepreneurs will not provide an overnight solution to this country’s schooling problems but will set South Africa on a path to educational recovery. Many parents will opt to pay fees to private schools to ensure a better-quality education for their children. Dramatic change in the way young South Africans are trained and educated is necessary to give current and future generations a chance in life and hope for a brighter future. — Politicsweb.

• Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of Unchain the Child: Abolish Compulsory Schooling Laws. The views expressed in the article are not necessarily shared by the members of the foundation.

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