Research released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise suggests that rather than low-fee private schools being discouraged, they should be seen as a vital part of our education environment.

We need to reassess our regulatory regime to encourage the development of both state and private schools. We should use the potential of vibrant competition as a tool for improving the quality of education, ensuring that schools become more accountable to the communities they are meant to serve.

Private schooling for the poor is a global growth industry, filling the gap left by struggling state systems in developing societies. In India, for example, the majority of learners in urban areas now attend private schools.

Low-fee private schools have also gained a foothold in South Africa. How big is this sector? How fast is it growing? Can it provide meaningful numbers of learners in poorer communities with a good education? Should the state do more to recognise this sector, and encourage its growth? These are among the issues addressed in the ground-breaking study conducted by the CDE over the past two years.

Our research turned into a journey of discovery. While other studies have been conducted on this topic, they have thus far been based on phone surveys and national census data. By contrast, CDE literally “walked the streets” of our selected areas, and searched block by block for schools – both registered and unregistered.

We found private schools in abandoned factories, shopping centres, shacks, and high-rise buildings. We found a chain of private schools operating in the Johannesburg city centre, Soweto, and Diepsloot, accommodating thousands of learners. The founders were planning on opening a chain of high schools.

In some inner-city areas, private schools far outnumbered public schools. Even more surprising was the even split between state and private schools in rural Butterworth, and the presence of private schools in remote areas in Limpopo and Eastern Cape.

The low-fee private schooling sector appears to be far larger than is generally believed. While public schools remained in the majority, low-fee private schools comprised more than 30% of our sample – far more than the Department of Education’s national estimate for 2008 of 4.3%.

Between 1994 and 2009, more private schools were established in the areas we investigated than public schools. Classes in public schools were bigger than those in private schools, and the pupil-teacher ratio was far higher. While the low-fee private schools had fewer facilities than public schools, as in other countries, they tended to concentrate on the essentials of teaching that would provide the pass rates they needed to attract more pupils.

While obviously varying in quality, the low-fee private schools we investigated were generally valued by parents, were accountable to parents, were staffed by dedicated teachers who often worked for low salaries, and were run by principals and owners determined to provide the quality of schooling sought by locals. A key feature of these schools was their local accountability.

Should parents become unhappy with their children’s results, the dedication of the teachers, or perceive other problems with the school, they could take their children – and the funds associated with their tuition – elsewhere.

This competition between schools meant that they had to strive for quality education or cease to exist. The same cannot be said of public-sector schools, where in general, budgets are not directly linked to performance. To attract customers, private schools had to offer better schooling than that provided by surrounding schools.

Teacher salaries in private schools were far lower than those in public schools, with state teachers tending to be better qualified. Levels of teacher absenteeism were, however, far lower in private schools than in public schools. Indeed, not a single teacher was absent at any of the unregistered private schools visited by our researchers. The teachers in these private schools seemed to be well aware that they were directly accountable to the owner of the school, who in turn was directly accountable to the parents.

Our findings raise important questions for current education debates. Should free schooling be a policy priority?

The parents we interviewed argued that paying for schooling made principals and teachers more accountable. This poses the following questions. Does competition between local schools – public and private – improve the quality of the schooling offered? If there are consequences for public schools whose parents choose to send their children to a private school, will this spur improved performance in public schools? What really leads to better teacher performance? Should we focus more on sanctions for teacher absenteeism and bad performance?