South Africa needs urgent education reform. While the vast majority of children in South Africa are in school, they are being denied a quality education. This is not because of underspending (6.2% of GDP is at the high end of upper middle income countries), nor a lack of interventions by government, the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

However, the contribution of the private (officially called “independent”) school sector is typically disregarded. A new report from the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) examines the role and growth of the independent sector. This has revealed some surprising facts, particularly about low-fee independent schools.

Education system change is complex. A system as large as ours, with 12.4 million learners in just under 26,000 schools, and some 425,000 educators in nine different provinces and 86 districts, is one of the largest management challenges in the country. But the challenge will be compounded and we may fail another generation unless government provides decisive leadership and establishes a chain of accountability throughout the system. You cannot run a system without accountability.

Teachers who don’t come to school or who don’t teach must face the consequences of non-performance, or the system will never improve. Performance management linked to accountability and effective professional development is imperative for the quality of schooling.

Accountability is a hallmark of independent schools. Principals and teachers are held accountable for learner achievement because the schools will go out of business if they don’t deliver quality.

Sir Michael Barber, a leading authority on education reform and low-cost private schools internationally, was recently hosted by the CDE.  He pointed to the significant role played by private schools for the poor in developing countries.  Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of students in low-income countries attending private primary schools doubled, from 11 to 22 per cent. In India alone, with 253 million children in school, 35 per cent of the enrolment is in private elementary schools and over 50 per cent at the secondary level.

In South Africa, while the independent sector is growing rapidly, it is off a low-base. According to the official figures, in 2014 there were 1,651 independent schools (6.5% of all schools). Umalusi, the statutory accreditation body, estimates there are twice as many schools, but even so, the numbers are small.

South Africa’s private school sector is different from that in other developing countries. Here the vast majority of schools are not-for-profit; the fees of the low-fee schools are considerably higher; more girls are enrolled than boys; and a maze of actively implemented legislation and regulations govern independent schools, with severe sanctions for non-compliance. Only not-for-profit low- and mid-fee schools may qualify for state subsidy.

The right of independent schools to exist is also protected in the South African Constitution as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race, are registered and provide standards equal to comparable public schools. And the Constitutional Court found in 2013 that independent schools advance children’s right to basic education.

Government requires more from independent schools than public schools. Many public schools, especially those in poor communities, would be unable to meet the same standards of provision and quality. Unfortunately, exploitative ‘fly-by-night’ schools, typically unregistered, exist and give the independent sector a bad name, and the provinces are responsible for closing them down.

New players establishing chains of for-profit and not-for profit, ‘affordable’ or ‘lower-fee’ schools have accelerated the growth of the sector. CDE’s research shows that independent school enrolments have doubled since 2000 from a quarter to half a million learners. Low-fee independent schools – defined by CDE as those charging fees of less than R12,000 per year, the average provincial expenditure on a learner in a public school in 2014 – are educating nearly half of these learners.

In Gauteng, for example, between 1995 and 2013 the number of independent schools increased by 363 to 593, compared to an increase of 229 public schools to 2056. New schools are emerging all the time: the province received 261 applications for registration in 2013 and 2014.

By 2014 there were 651 independent schools in the province catering for a quarter million learners (246,898). They are 24 per cent of all schools, and educate 11 per cent of all the learners and, according to the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), are “making a meaningful contribution to providing access to education for all Gauteng citizens”.

However, it is the contribution of the low-fee subsidised schools in the province that is most significant. Enrolments in these schools grew by nearly 5 per cent between 2013 and 2014 compared to 2.4 per cent in public schools. The result is that some 73,000 learners in Gauteng are being educated in low-fee, not-for-profit, subsidised independent schools, charging fees below R12,000 and serving poor communities. With lower compliance costs and a higher government subsidy than the current maximum of 60% of the cost of public school learners, more low-fee schools could charge less than R6000 per annum and reach even poorer communities.

Subsidised independent schools save Gauteng money. If all the learners in these schools had to be educated in public schools in 2012, it would have cost Gauteng another half a billion rand in recurrent costs alone. To accommodate only the 73,000 learners in the low-fee subsidised schools, the province would need to build another 73 public schools, each with 1000 learners. In fact, if the 246,898 learners in all independent schools (at all fee levels) in the province had to be accommodated in public schools, Gauteng would need another 250 public schools.

Innovation is a strength of independent schools. As Sir Michael Barber said, “Innovation in a public education system is difficult because it is tough for governments to take risks. It is in this area that the private education sector can make a significant contribution to improving educational outcomes.”

South Africa needs to find the right mix of public and private schooling to ensure that growing numbers of children receive a good education as quickly as possible.  CDE argues for a diversified national system where parents have a choice, whether they’re poor, middle class or wealthy.

The Punjab province of Pakistan is an example of rapid, education system reform that involves a collaborative – rather than competitive – relationship between the public and the private sectors, and strong leadership from the Punjab Chief Minister.  The Punjab Education Foundation was established to promote high quality education for the poor through partnerships with the private sector. It is funded by the government of the Punjab and is headed by a team, most of whom are from the private sector. One of its programmes targets low-cost private schools to improve the quality of education through a voucher scheme, teacher training, and a monetary incentive to schools for improved academic performance

The 21st century is going to be a very tough place for anybody who does not have access to quality education. With the speed at which technology changes and is adopted, the difference between not being educated and being educated is more extreme than it has ever been before. Given the extent of South Africa’s unemployment and education crisis, we cannot neglect the role a growing independent sector can play.