The South African education sector has been thrust into the spotlight again recently, eliciting many questions, debates and varying opinions about potential solutions to an ongoing challange. Amid all the negativity currently being reported on, 2016 Innovator of the Year® award winners, Ryan Harrison and Stacey Brewer of SPARK Schools, remain inspired as ever to use the opportunities presenting themselves within the sector.
It has been reported that South Africa has one of the highest rates of public investment in education in the world. Accounting for around 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of total state expenditure, the government spends more on education than on any other sector. Yet, Ryan, says that this is currently not translating to tangible results.
Ryan and his co-founder Stacey, started the SPARK Schools network in response to the growing opportunities that became available to fix a struggling education system through creativity and innovation.
SPARK Schools is a network of primary schools dedicated to delivering accessible, high quality education by using a blended learning programme, which combines traditional classroom teaching and online learning, to individualise education for all students. The SPARK Schools model is the first of its kind for primary school students in Africa and the software SPARK School scholars use is adaptive, allowing for highly individualised student practice and assessment.
“The primary education division is one of the hardest areas to innovate because young children need much more stability and hands-on guidance to aid their development, whereas in senior levels, children are able to self-study, which allows for more creativity in the tools they are exposed to within the classroom,” says Ryan. “At SPARK Schools, we’ve only just begun to shake things up in the way our education model works, but there is a need for an overhaul and renewed creativity, in order to work towards a system that benefits all our learners – countrywide.”
As state schools currently have the monopoly within the education system, more competition is needed to drive change, says Ryan. He stresses the need for more entrepreneurs to get involved in this vital sector of the South African economy. “It’s not all about making money – sometimes we have to forgo the easy sell to make a quick buck initatives, and instead get really innovative for the sake of our, and our children’s, future.”
He explains that if parents were presented with more options to choose affordable, private education, as opposed to state school facilities, the sector would benefit overall. “As in any industry where a monopoly is present, we tend to accept mediocrity for lack of other options available. But the minute there is new competition in the industry, we as consumers are able to choose options that suit us better, according to our own personal preferences. Competition also forces businesses – and in this case, schools – to aim higher and perform better.”
Part of the innovation within SPARK Schools is the emphasis placed on teachers. The school prides itself in the amount of effort that goes into their recruitment process for teachers. “Teachers find themselves under a lot of scrutiny, and part of this is owing to the often inadequate training that they receive, which often does not sufficiently prepare them for the classroom,” says Ryan.
SPARK Schools has implemented a number of innovative activities for teachers at their school. These include a training programme to accustom new teachers to the SPARK Schools education model, and on-going professional development which includes weekly 4-hour skills-training sessions customised to a teacher’s particular needs, internal coaching to mentor and assess teachers in their classroom on a weekly basis, as well as ad hoc leadership training programmes outside of the classroom to assist teachers to grow into a principal role.
Overall, these positive, go-getter entrepreneurs have realised that when working in the education space, quality takes priority over everything else. “We want to instil a culture of innovation within our schools and this means that everyone employed here has to fit into our culture and mission. We work towards one common goal, which is to provide high quality private education at affordable rates,” says Ryan.
“We have many dreams and goals for the SPARK Schools network. Ultimately, we want to take our schools abroad. But for now, our core focus is on South Africa, and increasing SPARK Schools’ current network of 11 to 20 schools across the country. With a larger share of the education sector pie, we hope to inspire the sector to make a real difference in the quality of education that is provided to South Africa’s children and families.”