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What to look for before you choose a private school

By Nicola Killops

Recently, a well-known private school in a prominent chain shocked parents with just a 50% matric pass rate. Parents who had paid hefty fees expected nothing less than exceptional education and comprehensive preparation for their children. Unfortunately, the school, despite claiming to follow the ‘Cambridge curriculum,’ was marred by several issues, including a lack of staff, unqualified teachers, and educators teaching subjects they weren’t experts in. By the time these problems were recognised, it was too late for corrective action. Choosing a private school can be quite complex – especially with the many options out there. In the last decade, private education in South Africa has grown exponentially, offering a broad spectrum of opportunities for families across different income levels. This change is largely due to decreasing confidence in public schools and a growing desire for high-quality education.

Beyond Marketing – Finding the Right Fit

Choosing the right school involves more than falling for good marketing or promises. It requires a deep dive to check if a school can truly meet your child’s needs and maybe even surpass your expectations.

This situation makes us question the dependability of schools. To help, I plan to clarify exactly what terms like ‘Cambridge’ and ‘IEB, etc mean, giving you a clear roadmap to make wise decisions when choosing a private school.

A recent report in The Citizen shed light on a significant issue: the shutdown of unlicensed schools in Gauteng. This situation is alarming because it was discovered that these schools were operating without adequately qualified staff. Specifically, many of their teachers were not registered with the South African Council for Educators. When parents choose such schools, thinking they’re providing their children with a quality education, they’re putting their children’s academic future at risk.

One of the major risks is the possibility that students might have to repeat a grade if they decide to switch to an accredited school later. This could set back their educational progress significantly. Moreover, the shutdown of these unauthorised schools not only disrupts students’ education but also puts parents in a difficult position financially. They might struggle to recover the tuition fees they’ve paid, leaving them out of pocket and their children out of school – a stark reminder of the importance of verifying a school’s accreditation status before enrolment, ensuring the educational investment is safe and sound.

Critical Considerations for Choosing a Private School:

Choosing the right private school for your child is a commitment to their future. Understanding the key aspects that distinguish a quality institution is essential.

Here are the vital factors to consider:

Reputation and History: A school’s performance, especially in national exams, speaks volumes about its ability to nurture student success. For emerging schools, the leadership’s vision and strategy can provide a glimpse into its potential for excellence.

Educational Staff: The calibre of education is directly linked to the faculty’s expertise. A blend of new teachers, bringing fresh perspectives, and seasoned educators, offering depth of experience, is ideal. All staff members must hold the necessary qualifications and undergo thorough vetting for the safety of the students.

Leadership: The success of a school often hinges on its leadership. A team that is accessible and responsive demonstrates a dedication to creating a nurturing and inclusive atmosphere for all members of the school community.

Curriculum and Teaching Approach: A curriculum that encourages critical thinking and adaptability prepares students for future challenges. Support in choosing elective subjects after Grade 9 is also crucial, as it helps students plan their academic and career trajectories.

Accreditation: A school’s accreditation status is a crucial indicator of its adherence to educational standards and quality. While this topic is explored in greater detail later in the article, understanding a school’s accreditation is key to ensuring it offers a recognised and valuable education.

These considerations are a guide to finding a school that meets educational standards and aligns with your child’s unique needs and aspirations.

Understanding Registration and Accreditation for Private Schools

Jacqueline Aitchison heads up the Professional Development of Heads for SAHISA Central Region and sits on the executive committee for the South African Heads of Independent Schools for the Central Region. She is also the Founder & Executive Head at Education Incorporated – IEB GDE-registered private school in Fourways. Aitchison stresses, ‘When parents pick a school, they should be looking for more than just good academic results or tempting facilities. They should be searching for a place that deeply values being legally sound, properly accredited, and deeply sustainable. It’s this kind of commitment that truly prepares students for whatever comes next, giving them not just academic success, but also the confidence and integrity to use it wisely.’

Before committing to a private school for your child, two critical boxes need to be checked: Is the school officially registered with the Provincial Department of Education, and does it hold accreditation from Umalusi? (Or is it currently in the process of achieving this accreditation?)

These foundational aspects guarantee that the institution operates within the legal framework of South Africa’s educational system and adheres to the standards set for quality education.

All private schools offering the CAPs curriculum and aiming for their students to sit for the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams, administered either by the Department of Education (DBE) or the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), must be registered with their provincial arm of the DBE. Additionally, they are required to secure accreditation from Umalusi or demonstrate that they are in the process of doing so. For any of these steps to be achieved, the school is required to meet standard SACE requirements with regards to the qualifications and registration of their teachers.

This initial vetting ensures the school’s legitimacy and commitment to delivering an education that meets national standards, safeguarding your child’s academic future.

Registration with the Department of Education

First and foremost, confirm the school’s registration with the Provincial Department of Education. This step is non-negotiable as it verifies the school’s legal operation within the country. Registration with the Department signifies adherence to basic educational standards and is the first filter in ensuring a school’s legitimacy.

Accreditation by Umalusi

For private schools offering the CAPs curriculum and planning for students to undertake the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations, Umalusi accreditation is critical. This body is responsible for upholding quality and standards in general and further education and training. Umalusi’s endorsement means the teachers are qualified and registered, and that the curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment strategies meet national quality requirements, offering your child a credible and recognised matric qualification.

Cambridge International Examination Board

For a school to legitimately claim that it is a Cambridge School, it must be registered with Cambridge International Examinations – and many who claim to be Cambridge Schools have not done so, are not eligible or are merely tuition centres offering Cambridge distance learning. A verified Cambridge registration is a testament to the school’s commitment to delivering the Cambridge standard of education, allowing your child access to a global educational framework and qualifications recognised worldwide. Verifying the school’s status can be easily done through the ‘Find a School’ feature on the Cambridge website, ensuring the institution’s claims are more than just promotional rhetoric.

Independent Examinations Board (IEB)

The IEB provides an examination service widely respected for its rigorous academic standards, and predominantly used by South African schools. Schools opting for the IEB over the traditional government NSC exams must be accredited by Umalusi but operate under the IEB’s guidelines. This ensures that the education provided is not only of high quality but also equips students with critical thinking skills that are beneficial beyond their schooling years. The IEB is recognised globally by a several hundred international universities and additionally offers Further Studies subjects which are the equivalent of the Cambridge A-level, or the traditional South African post-matric level.

Membership in Educational Associations

Membership in recognised educational associations like the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) can offer additional quality assurance. ISASA membership implies a commitment to maintaining the association’s standards and ethical practices, providing an extra layer of credibility.

The South African Council for Educators (SACE)

Finally, ensure that all teachers at the school are registered with SACE. This registration is a testament to their qualifications and commitment to professional ethical standards, ensuring your child is taught by competent and accountable educators.

Final Thoughts: Choosing a private school

Doing the groundwork to verify a school’s credentials might seem overwhelming, yet it’s an essential part of protecting your child’s educational path. Opting for a school that adheres to established legal and accreditation criteria does more than just contribute to a solid education for your child today. It lays the groundwork for their future success, guaranteeing they receive an education that holds value both within our borders and beyond.