Some schools are more equal than others

2014-03-10 00:00

IT’S the time of the year when parents have to submit high school applications for their children who will be in Grade 8 next year. The high school a child attends can certainly make a difference in terms of her future, and some schools are more equal than others.

As in so many things, the number of choices a parent has depends on where you live and how much money you have to spend on school fees and transport.

Parents who live in rural areas and have little disposable income, will send their child to the local school, which is unlikely to have physical resources such as computers, a library, or sports fields. Subject choice may well be limited, and there certainly won’t be art, drama or computer assisted drawing (CAD) on offer.

These schools are categorised by the state as Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools, deemed “poorest” in terms of the poverty levels of the local community and infrastructure.

As a way of addressing the funding imbalances of the apartheid education system, these schools get the lion’s share of state funding at R1 010 per pupil per annum, and are “no-fee” schools. Sixty- five percent of schools in KwaZulu-Natal are no-fee schools.

The pupil achievement rate is quite variable, although there are excellent, dedicated teachers who make it possible for pupils in rural schools to excel. Some of the best schools located in rural areas are those linked to churches, like Little Flower Secondary in Ixopo or Polela High in Bulwer. These schools are highly sought after for their excellent matric pass rates.

Parents who have some money will often choose to send their children away to school in order to get the best possible education for them.

Witness readers may remember the story of Lwazi Shezi, who achieved so well in mathematics but spent his matric year living alone in Umlazi, just so he could attend a “better” school.

There are many parents in the Eastern Cape who send their children to school in Pietermaritzburg, even though this means that they have to live in often dodgy private boarding establishments.

Other children spend two or three hours a day travelling in a taxi from as far as Hammarsdale, where their transport costs of roughly R800 a month are in fact more than their school fees. Parents go to enormous lengths to send their children to the best schools that they can afford. We tend to judge “best” by looking at matric pass rates, which is understandable given the huge emphasis society places on getting a Senior Certificate.

For the small percentage of parents who can afford schools fees of more than R12 000 per annum, the choice of schools is much wider.

At these suburban schools, an excellent matric pass rate, a high number of distinctions and Bachelor’s passes, well equipped media centres and good sport facilities are a given, and parents have the luxury of making choices using other criteria.

Do you want a single-sex school, or co-educational; do you want a strong focus on arts and culture, or on sport? Are there particular specialised subjects that your child wants to take, like French or advanced maths?

Parents may well choose a school for a particular ethos, or for the kind of learning environment that it will provide (strong emphasis on discipline, or more open and relaxed).

These schools are categorised by the state as the “least poor” Quintile 5 schools. In KZN, about 15% of schools are classified as Quintile 5 and are allocated state funding of R252 per pupil per annum. They make up for this by charging school fees ranging from R12 000 — R32 000 per annum, and most spend this money paying for additional teachers.

In some cases, up to half of the teachers are paid by the School Governing Body, and this obviously allows the school to offer smaller class sizes, a greater range of subject choices and a choice of extra-curricular activities. These schools receive three or four times the number of applications than they have places available for Grade 8, so there is anxiety and uncertainty about whether a child will be accepted.

Pietermaritzburg also has a selection of private schools, where school fees start at R40 000 for tuition only, going up to R209 000 for both tuition and boarding.

These schools cover the same curriculum as state schools, but may well offer a wider range of subjects and a large choice of extra-curricular activities.

Most private schools write the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) examinations and not the examinations set by the Department of Basic Education, which may be one of the reasons that some parents choose them over public schools.

It’s also about the ethos, about continuing family traditions as well as the old school network that creates opportunities in the future.

So while the recent Witness Education supplement presents a seemingly wide range of schools, it is only middle class and rich parents who have the luxury of choosing these schools.

The majority of parents in KZN must choose no-fee schools, and hope that their child receives a quality learning experience. The challenge facing us all is how to increase the quality of learning offered at no-fee schools, so that all children have more equal chances of success.

• Carol Bertram is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.

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