News / Africa

Low-Fee Private Schools on the Rise in Africa

FILE - Students arrive for class at the Every Nation Academy private school in the city of Makeni in Sierra Leone.
FILE - Students arrive for class at the Every Nation Academy private school in the city of Makeni in Sierra Leone.
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— Across the African continent, schools are popping up. These aren't public schools responding to population growth, but rather low-fee private schools, which are meeting the demands of picky parents, new communities and areas where other education options are of poor quality.

When Sepheu Nkoele was looking for a school to begin his daughter's education he had certain criteria.

It had to have a Christian point of view, rigorous academics and it had to be affordable.

Nkoele, a firefighter in a suburb north of Johannesburg, spends around $1000 on annual tuition for his daughter to attend Vuleka Schools.

"I wouldn't go to a public school, because in the public school it is not the education that I want," he explained. "I don't want the government school because I've been to the government school, so I don't want my kids to be like me. That's why I chose Vuleka because Vuleka's an affordable school. Vuleka's a school for the people."

Across the African continent, parents like Nkoele want a better education for their children than the state schools provide, but can't afford traditional private schools.

In Ghana, it's estimated that one third of schools are low-fee private schools. The model is also booming in Nigeria and Kenya, as private companies and non-profit organizations start their own schools.

Dr. Jane Hofmeyr, the executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, said low fee schools have grown tremendously over the last decade.

"Low-fee independent schools, as they are called here, are an absolutely growing phenomenon, in all developing countries. In South Africa they've been growing hugely, particularly more recently. This year alone, the Gauteng Department of Education has had 246 applications for new, independent schools," she said.

Gauteng, the province of Johannesburg, has had 120,000 more students going to independent schools in the last three years, Hofmeyr said.

Low-fee private schools are in demand in fast growing informal settlements and developments, where the public system just can't keep up.

Pieter Steyn is the headmaster at Masibambane College in Orange Farm, an informal settlement south of Johannesburg.

The Anglican church-based school serves more than 1,000 students in the low-income community, and charges tuition of $500 to $850 per year.

His school has a long waiting list, including many parents who want to transfer their children in from one of the 23 public schools in the area. The academic rigor of his school can be daunting for some who make the change.

"Normally their reports are very promising, until they write the tests, and then they really struggle, the children. And that's quite a sad indictment, really, of what's happening in the public schools," said Steyn.

What he notices is strong parent involvement with those who send their children to his school. 

"They are making huge sacrifices. They're very ambitious. They have a very clear vision of what they want for their children and what they know their children are capable of and for that. I have parents who sometimes pay as much as 50, 40 percent of their income to get their kids to come to the school," he noted. "It's a big sacrifice but they really want their children to have a leg up in the world."

Tuition for such schools is often based on family income, and some schools also receive state subsidies based on need in the area, which can drive down costs further.

Research has found that parents believe the school is more accountable if they pay a fee to the school and feel they have more of a stake in their child's education. Steyn also says they have a much more direct connection with him than they might with the head of a public school.

Along with non-profit and church-run schools, there are also private companies getting into the education business.

Stacey Brewer, the founder of Spark Schools, studied the business model for low-free private schools while pursuing her MBA.  The Spark school saves money by not offering sports programs, and uniforms and meal plans are not included in tuition.  The company has one school in Johannesburg and will have another built by the end of the year.

"Either way, people aren't building schools quick enough. You know the population is growing, the waiting lists at schools are getting longer and no one's really offering any other schooling model. … So that's where I would say low fee private schools can come in because they can respond a lot quicker," said Brewer.

Responding quickly is the key phrase. Spark plans to build 62 more schools in South Africa over the next 10 years.

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