Private schools for the poor are a global phenomenon. In Colombia, Chile, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere parents are deserting failing public schools and “edupreneurs” are emerging to meet local needs. India is estimated to have 40% of urban learners in private schools for the poor. If unregistered schools are included this number jumps closer to 70%.

A detailed survey of educational provision in four Indian states described poor parents making great sacrifices to send children to private schools, so disillusioned were they with government schools. When researchers called unannounced on a large random sample of government schools, in only half was there any teaching activity at all. Much teaching had been reduced to a minimum, in terms of time and effort, and this approach was becoming a way of life in the profession. By contrast, when researchers called on their random sample of private schools, “feverish classroom activity” was taking place.

What is the secret of success in these mushrooming private schools for the poor? The Indian report was clear: “In a private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them) and through him or her to the parents (who can withdraw their children). In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance. This contrast is perceived with crystal clarity by the vast majority of parents.”

The Centre for Development & Enterprise (CDE) has completed a two-year study involving researchers walking the streets of six SA communities (Giyani and Malamule in Limpopo; Braamfontein and Daveyton in Gauteng; Butterworth and Cofimvaba/Tsomo in the Eastern Cape) — urban, rural, peri- urban and deep rural — looking for private schools. When researchers entered public schools unannounced, teachers were often absent or engaged in nonteaching activities such as eating or talking on cellphones. In low-fee private schools during similar unannounced visits, teaching was invariably taking place, often after hours, and no teacher was absent in any of the private unregistered schools surveyed (25%-30% of the total).

Despite low-fee private schools having far less infrastructure and fewer formally qualified teachers, many parents choose these schools, paying an average R650/month in areas where public schools cost an average R104/month (R50 if no-fee schools are included).

Our interviews with 171 parents were revealing. These are not hapless dupes conned by “fly-by-night” operators. Most schools have been in existence for 10 years or more, growing grade by grade. Parents know the merits of different schools in the local area, are involved in the private school and have strong views on what kind of education they want for their children. One learner told us: “My mother says at public schools no-one really cares what happens; there is no owner.”

Of the schools in our six study areas, 30% are private. They cater for 14,5% of the 100000 learners in these areas. A large proportion of the parents sending their children to low-fee private schools were themselves public school teachers.

Our research is indicative; the country needs to know more: a national survey and more intense micro-studies are required. What we found raises important issues. Should free schools be a priority? What really makes for improved teacher performance? Can competition at all income levels improve the quality of schooling in SA, especially for poorer families? How do we achieve better combinations of public and private resources in the quest for good schools? Should we experiment with a system where public money goes to learners and not schools? Is SA’s huge public schooling system starting to shrink?