Meet the woman making SPARK fly

Stacey Brewer is co-founder and CEO of SPARK Schools, a network of primaries dedicated to delivering high-quality, low-cost education in South Africa

Why did you decide to create SPARK Schools? 
In South Africa, the state is prioritising education but in reality, we are not seeing results as we are ranked bottom of the world in various reports. Last year, 80% of our pupils in Grade 4 (aged eight–nine) couldn’t read without meaning so SPARK was formed to address a national crisis. We decided to create a model that was affordable but at the same time, just because we are able to offer something at a certain price point it doesn’t mean it is substandard. In January 2013, we launched our first school with 160 children and now we operate 15 schools and serve over 7,000 children and have plans to open our first high school next year. 

What role do low-cost private schools have in the education system?
I am going to talk about the South African market as I think its role is different. Overall, the education systems are very expensive, and the cost of education is increasing year-on-year. Our government is not building schools quickly enough, and we would rather have kids in schools than not going to school, so I think the role of low-cost private schools is to provide choice to families and under-served communities that didn’t have the choice before. 

Do you work in partnership with state schools? 
There are no real formal partnerships, but we definitely need to engage more with local schools. From a teacher perspective we are trying to do more collaboration but it’s something that we absolutely could be doing more of. We are also part of The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) and they are trying to bring state schools and private schools together.

What are your thoughts about the public vs private debate? 
For me, the debate is very weird because in South Africa we pay for everything. Back home, there is no negative sentiment around private schools; if anything it is deemed to be higher quality from a parent’s perspective. They are very proud to send their children to private schools. 

Has anything surprised you about the conversation surrounding low-cost private schools? 
Everyone gets hung up on the public vs private debate and I think that we can’t sit around waiting for everything to be perfect. I can’t change the government but I can start schools and give opportunities to people. 

When you started SPARK, was there one thing from your education experience that you wanted to change? 
When we started SPARK it was important to create a school that we would want our kids to attend. We have a huge focus on character development and social and emotional learning, which we didn’t really have in school. I went to a private school and it was very traditional, but with SPARK we tailor the learning experience to the pupil’s needs.

In the next five years, where do you see SPARK? 
We have been in operation for five years so it’s nice to think about the next five years. I hope we will be sitting around the table more with policy makers and having an influence there. I hope to see other providers coming to this space and I hope to see parents demanding more from our schools. We are focusing on South Africa at the moment, but we are definitely open to working with people across borders. 

SPARK schools:

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