PRIVATE tuition is a growing business in South Africa and there are new institutions opening each year. The demand for good, inexpensive — and accountable — schools has been driven both by parents desperate to escape the worst of the public system and the lack of new schools, despite the needs of a growing population.

Not all state-funded schools are overcrowded, dysfunctional or lacking top-quality facilities. Some of the most exceptional schools in South Africa — many of them former “model C” institutions — are funded by the state, but this does not necessarily make them inexpensive. Pretoria Boys’ High, for example, is this year charging more than R30,000 for matric and boarding costs an additional R40,500.

Profit-driven private schools might not be able to match the historic excellence, alumni ties and loyalty these schools have, but they can offer high-quality tuition in well-equipped campuses at a reasonable price — sometimes even below that charged by public institutions.

But the soaring demand for schooling has not gone unnoticed by people looking to make a quick buck. Jaco Deacon, deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, says parents need to have their eyes wide open when considering new, untested schools because fly-by-night operators are taking the gaps in the market.

The demand for private tuition is being met most notably by JSE-listed Curro and Advtech, which provide franchised “brands” catering to different markets in terms of the price and level of education.

Advtech schools include Crawford, Trinityhouse, Abbotts College and Junior Colleges.

Both Crawford and Abbotts write the national senior certificate, whereas Trinityhouse students write the Independent Examination Board equivalent.

Trinityhouse and Crawford are high-end schools that, according to Advtech CEO Frank Thompson, are comparable to premier-league private schools and graduates can expect to be admitted to top universities in South Africa and around the world.

Fees at Trinityhouse Little Falls this year range from R49,200 for Grade 4 to R58,580 for Grade 12. Fees at Bishops in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s top private schools, range from R64,620 a year for Grade 4 to R88,800 for Grade 12.

A child in Grade 4 at Advtech’s Crawford Lonehill school will cost R68,040 and matric will cost R82,430.

Despite the fees being as high as they are, Mr Thompson said the demand for places at Advtech schools was rising faster than expected and waiting lists had been created for the more established schools.

He said the major drawcard for Advtech schools was the standard of education, coupled with the school ethos, excellent teachers and the “secure and nurturing yet competitive environment”.  He said a back-office team ensured that standards were kept high.

The Advtech board has announced that, over the next five years, it will pump at least R1.1bn into eight new schools in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and expand existing operations.

Advtech has its own teacher “pipeline” that is developed through the provision of scholarships and bursaries for teaching degrees. Graduates are not obliged to teach at Advtech schools, but many do.

The Curro mission statement is to “make private-school education more accessible to more South African children”.  Curro develops, acquires and manages schools across the country in four brands — Select, Curro traditional, Meridian, and Junior Academies for preschool children.

Curro now has 27 schools across the country catering for 20,750 children.

Select schools, the most expensive option, are typically institutions that have been acquired as going concerns when owners want to sell. Woodhill in Pretoria East is an example. The fees here range from R48,000 for Grade 4 to R60,000 for Grade 12.

Curro traditional schools are less expensive, ranging from about R30,000 for Grade 4 to R42,000 for Grade 12.

Meridian schools offer tuition from between R12,000 a year for lower grades and R16,800 for senior grades.

Chris van der Merwe, CEO of Curro, said although Meridian schools offered excellent tuition and facilities, costs were kept to a minimum through offering only English-medium teaching, providing a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:35 (it is 1:25 in the Curro traditional and Select offerings) and limiting subject choices to 12 from Grade 10 instead of the usual 24. The choice of subjects is negotiated with the parent body after the analysis of pupils.

However, Mr van der Merwe said technology and IT facilities were not sacrificed in any way in the more affordable Meridian option. All children are given IT lessons and the quality is kept the same throughout the schools.

The demand for places at Curro schools has also soared and new schools are coming on track rapidly.

In 2012, Curro constructed five and purchased one new institution, virtually doubling the number of pupils. Van der Merwe said Curro had 10 new developments in the pipeline and six or seven were due to come on stream this year.

Spark Schools is another example of innovation in private schooling. Investor David Gibb partnered with Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison to launch their first school in Ferndale, Johannesburg.

It opened its doors to 140 children from Grade 0 to 2 in a leased office park earlier this month.

Spark is based on the Rocketship brand in California, which combines traditional classroom instruction with “Learning Lab” — a technology-based online process that is adapted to each child.

Known as a hybrid teaching operation, these schools cut costs by scheduling classes to make the best use of the teachers available.

The model is inherently scalable and cost-effective, according to Mr Gibb. He said the idea was to open another school in the next few years and then aim for about 64 schools in the first decade.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers