Are private schools worth it?
A finance writer looks at what to keep in mind when considering a private education.
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The push and pull factors when it comes to private schooling have never been so brutal.

On the one hand, reports about a breakdown in the state schooling system, large class sizes and last year’s teacher strike are creating a greater demand for private education.

But on the other, household finances are taking enormous strain, with more than 11m South Africans now behind on paying their debts. Few can afford to pay higher school fees.

From one perspective, having a private school education can also work to your child’s disadvantage when trying to get into the tertiary institution and course of her choice.

While some private schools (particularly in the Western Cape) still do the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam, most use the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) matric exam. The IEB has to be certified by Umalusi, the national qualification authority.

Most see the IEB as the tougher exam, making it more difficult to achieve distinctions and university admission. But tertiary institutions are not allowed to distinguish between IEB and NSC results. This means that an IEB candidate, who may have achieved better marks with the NSC, will be at a disadvantage when competing with state school matriculants.

But once you do get your university place, IEB students fare well. According to one study at the University of Cape Town, IEB candidates made up a quarter of all UCT graduates in December 2007. The drop-out rate of IEB matrics was only 2% - compared to between an estimated 35% to 50% at SA universities on the whole.

While private schools only represent 5% of the school system, they deliver a disproportionate number of graduates in scarce skills like maths and science, says Simon Lee, communications co-ordinator for the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa). In the sought-after health sciences courses, the UCT study showed that 25% of students were ex-IEB.

A private education, which presents an undeniably great “networking” opportunity among SA’s upper classes, could also assist your child’s career later in life.

According to one recruiter, ‘a Bishops matric plus a Damelin diploma’ can still even out an education at an average state school with a post-graduate qualification at a good university.

‘The perception is that private schools encourage independent thought.’

More choice and control

Some of the most attractive features of private schools for parents are accountability and the ability to select their own staff, curriculum and method of assessment, says Lee. State schools can struggle to get rid of teachers who don’t deliver, and can only follow the state curriculum and write the state senior certificate.

He says there has been a surge in faith-based and “corporate” schools, which usually charge between R18 000 and R25 000 a year. (The fees of some state schools are also closing in on the R20 000 mark.)

Some of the prominent corporate players in education are ADvTECH, which owns the Crawford Schools and Trinity House, and Paladin Capital, a PSG subsidiary, which owns 76% of Curro Holdings. Curro is opening nine new schools this year.

There has also been an explosion in low-fee private schools, which charge on average R682 per month. According to research from the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), there are hundreds of these schools in abandoned factories, shopping centres and high-rise buildings. The CDE study showed that a quarter of the private schools were unregistered, and therefore technically illegal. However, teacher absenteeism was non-existent in these private schools and test results are markedly higher than in the state sector.

For the full article and more on how to afford private school, go to Fin24.

Are private schools better?

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