A teacher faces a packed classroom in a school in Mthatha. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A teacher faces a packed classroom in a school in Mthatha. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SA’s education system is a paradox. Since 1994, the country has made significant improvements in access to education: enrolment at primary level is almost universal (there are about 12-million pupils in basic school education) and is expanding at secondary level thanks to the government’s efforts. More than 1-million students now have access to tertiary education.

There has also been a huge shift in the amount of government spending towards achieving increased access as well as deracialising and equalising SA’s education system. However, the country still suffers from significant challenges in the quality of educational achievement by almost any international metric.

The IMF reports that we spend on average over 6% of GDP on education, on par with many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. However, a significant number of Sub-Saharan Africa countries that spend far less per pupil than SA have far better educational outcomes. In short, SA suffers from weak educational quality, despite relatively high levels of public spending on education.

What can be done to bridge the gap between low-cost, poor-quality public education and high-cost, independent schooling?

As is well documented, low educational achievement contributes to low productivity growth, and high levels of poverty and unemployment. This is especially problematic in a country already grappling with stark economic inequality and years of sluggish growth.

With the country’s population expanding, classroom sizes are set to grow, and this is likely to exacerbate the problem. There are now about 31 pupils per teacher in SA public schools, with 524 pupils on average per school. This compares with about 11 pupils per teacher in independent schools, with an average of 204 total pupils per school.

What are the causes of SA’s low quality of education? While these are complex and multifaceted, what is clear is that inadequate funding is not the primary cause when the country spends 20% of its budget on education. Some of the explanatory factors are history — population groups that were denied quality education under apartheid achieve the worst outcomes today, and (importantly) the distribution of resources. Indeed, the poorest 75%-80% of pupils depend on dysfunctional public schooling and achieve poor outcomes, while the wealthiest 20%-25% of learners enrol in private schools and functional public schools, and achieve better academic outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, independent schools lead the way in terms of results, with many students achieving Bachelor pass rates that eclipse the national average. However, independent schools are prohibitively expensive to attend, so they do little to address the wider problems. 

What can be done to bridge the gap between low-cost, poor-quality public education and high-cost, independent schooling?

According to the IMF, better teacher training to close gaps in knowledge, improved school management, and greater teacher accountability are some of the possible measures that have the greatest potential to support educational performance in the long term.

This is where I believe the private sector, and particularly impact investors in affordable education, can catalyse the biggest change in the field. As well as providing access to capital, impact investors in schools often take an active ownership approach to partnering with management teams. They frequently have a seat on the school board, reviewing and advising on governance, financial and human resource systems. They will identify and facilitate teacher and support training programmes where required and support the school in managing its downside risks. Impact investors can help build and run larger operations, increasing independent schooling opportunities for low-income families. 

To gauge performance and ensure that value is being created for all stakeholders, investors will collect data to ascertain and measure progress. This is crucial, because only by regularly measuring and understanding educational attainment levels can we improve them. 

We know there are no quick fixes. A new school can take years before it becomes a stable, mature institution. But with vision and leadership, public and independent schools together can provide the education that meets the needs of the country and makes the most of SA’s young, growing and resourceful population.

• Chizura is head of impact funds at Old Mutual Alternative Investments.