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The balance between mission and market in Catholic schools

Increasingly, independent schools are run as businesses. Mark Potterton draws on some of the ideas by John Sullivan in his book “Catholic Schools in Contention” to address the challenges that Catholic schools face in maintaining both their ethos and their bottom line.

Before the lockdown, South Africa had low economic growth and high unemployment levels. Last year many families in independent schools, feeling the increased financial pressure, had no choice but to find more affordable schools for their children. Education economists had already predicted this in 2019 and one of the effects of the economic downturn is that enrolments at some private schools have dropped.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further impacted people’s ability to earn a living due to fewer working hours, fewer work opportunities and job losses. The International Monetary Fund expects the global economy to shrink by 3% in 2020. Economists predict that many South African families will continue to feel the impact of the pandemic long after the lockdown has been lifted.

This shock has and will have, severe consequences for both governments and households, and it will continue to impact both the demand for and supply of education.

A changing independent school sector

The face of independent schooling in South Africa has changed over the past five years, impacting on enrolments in many schools. The rapid growth of Curro, New Nation and Advtec, as well as schools like Spark and Nova Pioneer have made independent education more affordable and far more competitive. Affordable public schools in some neighbourhoods also offer attractive alternatives for parents who continue to seek schools that provide quality education for their children.

There are have also been major changes in how the independent school sector delivers education in more cost-effective ways.

There are have also been major changes in how the independent school sector delivers education in more cost-effective ways (e.g. approaches such as blended learning or tablets). In some schools, simpler building designs and construction have reduced costs. Catholic schools find it more difficult to compete with the new competitors with their aging infrastructure and limited facilities.

Business orientation

In response to these changes, independent schools increasingly see themselves as businesses. Business managers are appointed, preferably with MBAs, and boards celebrate and boast consultant-driven ‘business plans’ complete with Key Performance Indicators. In most cases, schools are concerned with the ‘bottom line’ and accumulating adequate cash reserves to survive. In exceptional situations, concerns also stretch to building the new Astroturf or acoustically fine-tuned school auditoriums. “We do need these resources to compete in this environment. The parents have expectations you know!” argue some of the board members in these schools. “It’s impossible to compete in this sector without an Astroturf and really top-class coaches,” says another.

As a result, very little time in board meetings is allocated to central issues such as teaching and learning or school ethos. Agendas are crammed with issues of strategy, competition, and the budget. A fair amount of time is also spent discussing building improvement and maintenance. Principals and teachers are marginalised in meetings by the captains of industry (who probably earn twenty to thirty times more than they do) who run successful businesses.

Very little time in board meetings is allocated to central issues such as teaching and learning or school ethos.

The world in which schools function has also changed significantly since they were founded. Religious congregations were entrepreneurial and established schools in many places, often funded by their overseas communities, benefactors and cross-subsidised schools. Some schools closed as quickly as they had been opened, often as a result of draconian Apartheid education regulations. Despite all this, one of the central reasons for their efficiency was that almost all the religious on the staff did not earn salaries.

Societal ambiguities

Catholic schools both echo and accentuate the ambiguities and conflicted nature of education. They share in and reflect closely the heated and unresolved debates about educational values and priorities that underpin education in our country.

However, they also recognize that it takes a lot of money to run an independent school. In fact, to keep the class numbers small, pay teachers a decent wage and maintain top-class facilities you do need to charge substantial fees. Many boards spend many hours agonizing and trying to make their fees more affordable. But the sad truth is that the marginalized for whom many of these schools were originally founded can’t afford to get past the framed gates! 

Catholic school leaders are responsible for steering schools through all these contradictions and develop skills to achieve a balance between the schools’ values and solvency.

The contentious nature of Catholic schools should not be an accidental feature but rather one that is essential to its healthy functioning. This requires great effort from Catholic school leaders who are responsible for steering schools through all these contradictions and develop skills to achieve a balance between the schools’ values and solvency. This requires healthy disagreement and debate in management and governance meetings to prevent any temptation towards institutional idolatry and to render complacency impossible. Catholic schools in this milieu require a willingness to entertain criticism and to respond to it.

Catholic schools must be very grateful to the many business-minded board members who sacrifice their time – often after hours – to make them function better and keep them afloat. Financial management is one of the most important responsibilities of school boards and school executives.

Boards must consider the potential consequences of their decisions and be cognizant that every aspect of the school’s activities impacts the school’s financial performance, and must continue to monitor, control, and evaluate the multiple tensions that underpin the running of a Catholic school within the current challenging, complex and competitive educational environment.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. A disappointing article on Catholic schools. No indication of how they could manage differently, how their role is still relevant, how they might enable less affluent people to benefit from their services, how their witness to the importance of living the teaching of Jesus is crucial responsibility.


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Mark Potterton
Mark Potterton is currently the primary school principal of Sacred Heart College, Observatory. He has taught in schools, a teachers’ training college and in universities. He served as National Director of the Catholic Institute of Education and worked at Umalusi as the Chief Operating Officer. He was part of the Ministerial Committee that looked at schools that work well in township and rural areas; as well as on a committee investigating teacher absenteeism in South Africa.

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