JOHANNESBURG — South Africa consistentowy ranks as one of the countries with the lowest quality public schools despite spending six percent of its GDP — more than any other African country — on education. An innovative network of private schools called SPARK schools aims to reform education in South Africa by offering working-class families a high-quality, affordable alternative to public education.
In 2011-2012, the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of education in South Africa 133rd out of 142 surveyed countries. According to The Economist, 27 percent of sixth-year students in South Africa lack basic literacy skills. Comparatively, 19 percent of sixth-year students in Zimbabwe and four percent in Tanzania are illiterate.
SPARK aims to offer high-quality, low-cost schooling to students traditionally relegated to low-quality public education in South Africa. SPARK schools are the first in South Africa to apply a blended learning model. Blended learning divides the educational structure into 75 percent direct teacher-student interactions and 25 percent computer-student interactions. Educators introduce a new concept in a traditional classroom setting, then students practice applying that concept in computer learning laboratories. Students who excel move on to new material, while students who struggle then receive one-on-one tutoring.
The blended learning model individualizes students’ education, as each scholar progresses at a comfortable pace. The model also lowers overhead costs by reducing the necessary number of teachers and classrooms.
VK Vu is a member of SPARK’s strategic expansion team in Johannesburg. Her primary role is implementing long-term strategic projects that bring SPARK closer to ambitious targets — SPARK plans to have 64 primary schools by 2023. The Borgen Project had a chance to speak with Vu about her team’s expansion efforts and SPARK’s value.
According to Vu, South African primary school students primarily fit into one of two educational settings — low-quality public schools or pricey private schools. SPARK offers a third option to working families. To preserve total autonomy over its creative school structure, SPARK does not take any government subsidies. SPARK schools have the same tuition cost as public schools but aim for higher levels of academic achievement. SPARK targets 100 percent university acceptance — a goal stressed daily to its scholars, says Vu.
Attracting and retaining top talent is a crucial component to SPARK’s vision. “One of our key value propositions,” says Vu, “is our commitment to professional development.” To ensure the organization hires quality educators who are committed to SPARK’s mission, salary levels are strategically kept within the 50-70th percentile. The organization also offers teachers 250 hours of professional development a year, while South African public schools offer only 25 hours a year. SPARK’s ambitious expansion goals give employees impressive advancement opportunities. Through SPARK’s leadership development program, a new teacher can potentially be promoted to principal within four years.
In addition to rigorous academics, SPARK fosters social and emotional values in its students. SPARK’s core values are “Service, Persistence, Achievement, Responsibility and Kindness.”
“Our social and emotional education is something that sets us apart,” says Vu. “SPARK is a non-denominational school, so our only guiding principles are our core values which translate among students of different color, race, religion and culture and enable our kids to be global citizens.”
SPARK’s blended learning model faces some unique challenges. South Africa’s under-developed infrastructure means implementing technology-based solutions is extremely expensive — internet access only became widely available within the past two years. Additionally, Vu emphasizes the struggle SPARK faces promoting their blended learning model to low-income parents with little exposure to technology. She says, “Our scholars’ parents do not know how to navigate around technology, so it is difficult for them to understand what their children are learning and why it is important.”
However, Vu is confident that SPARK’s blended learning model is an effective solution to low-quality education in South Africa. She says: “The blended learning model … enable(s) us to keep our costs lower and progresses the scholars to be competitive globally.” Ultimately, SPARK’s emphasis on high academic standards, emotional education and committed teachers prepares students to succeed beyond primary school.
– Katherine Parks