Stacey Brewer on SPARK as a catalyst for change in South Africa
16 April 2018
Spark Schools | Kenya, South Africa | Primary | 15 Schools | 7,500 Students
Tell me about yourself and about your journey to becoming an education entrepreneur?
Before starting SPARK, I never thought I would go into education. My schooling wasn’t a highlight of my life. It wasn’t great for me, I only liked sports. I went to a nice private school in Jo’burg, it was a very privileged environment but not the reality of the world.
In terms of my background, I did a Bachelor of Science at Rhodes University in Cape Town and I then spent a lot of time traveling. Most of my experience was in high end hospitality. I then got an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) because I wanted to get a decent job overseas.
My whole life changed when I was doing my MBA. I saw how bad education was in South Africa and how much of our budget was spent on education with no results. In addition, I saw the emergence of low fee private schools and how parents were sending their children to fee paying schools over free public schools. I did my thesis on low fee private schools. I found the quality was very questionable, the low fee private schools paid their teachers less with an increased number of kids in classroom and no innovation.
I spent time looking at school models in Africa, India and the US. The Rocketship model interested me the most because it serves second English language students, operates on a lower cost, is innovative and competes with high end schools. To me it was a no brainer.
We started SPARK to address a national crisis in education. We don’t want to be sub-standard, we want to compete at an international level, use blended learning, lab rotation and a flex model and have cost efficiency. Our children are outperforming their peers by at least one grade level. We launched our first school in 2013 and now have 15 schools, educate over 7000 children and employ over 750 staff members. We aim to have 36 schools by 2021.
What has been your favourite moment since opening?
I couldn’t say there is ‘one favourite moment’. This year for the first time, I’ve seen SPARK as a household name and people know SPARK. I get most excited thinking about the fact that everyone told us what we wanted to do was impossible, that South African teachers can’t do this, and we prove them wrong every day. The growth of the kids and staff is amazing.
What is your ultimate goal and vision for the organisation?
My ultimate goal is that South Africa leads global education. I say South Africa, not SPARK, because SPARK hasn’t yet created systemic change. We are proactive about leading the change and starting to play in global leagues. It’s a pipe dream and a big goal but we want to start seeing systemic change in the country and parents educating peers on what quality is. For SPARK, we want to go into high schools, open as many schools as possible across the country and open our doors to other organisations in the country.
What do you enjoy outside of work?
I’ve started boxing which I absolutely love. I’ve never done it before but it’s such a great workout, especially when you’re pushing yourself so much professionally in work. I’ve also started guitar lessons, but I’m very much a beginner. My dad sent me a guitar and we made a bet that I will play an Eric Clapton song by the end of the year. It’s great to learn something you know nothing about. It’s a whole new world. I also do yoga and meditation. I meditate every day as it brings me peace and comfort.
Hindsight is always 20/20. What advice would you give someone wanting to start schools?
I wish I had trusted my intuition a lot sooner, don’t doubt or question yourself. Trust your gut, it is the only thing that will differentiate you. Surround yourself with really smart people. However, it is a chicken and egg situation in a start up with not being able to afford the top talent when you need.
Which education book/movie/podcast should we all know about?
How to Escape education’s Death Valley by Sir Ken Robinson. It’s a really, really good description of education and shows a lot of hope.
What was the most challenging part of pioneering SPARK?
There have been many challenges. When we first started SPARK, the challenge was to raise capital, starting schools is very expensive. I didn’t have any personal capital, raising money and getting legitimacy in the market is very hard. Recruiting children to a brand new school is also challenging, you never know what is going to happen. Now the challenge really has been scaling, making sure what is delivered in one school is exactly the same as in another school. Attracting top talent into the industry is another difficulty. Our model is very different, preparing kids for the 21st century but teachers are trained in 19th century thinking, so bringing everyone up to speed is something we are always dealing with. Lastly, as a founder I have to grow quicker than the company in order to stay relevant, making sure I’m always ahead of the game.
SPARK is a member of Global Schools Forum, can you tell us about your experience with GSF so far?
It is great to be exposed to what others are doing internationally. People have definitely gone through what you’ve gone through, it’s great to share ideas, raise concerns, ask questions and know you are not alone in growing your organisation. The GSF conference was by far the best conference experience I’ve ever had. I love the intimacy of it and relationships you form. You gain networks to reach out to people across the world, it is extremely valuable.