Dr Chris van der Merwe (supplied)
  • Chris van der Merwe started Curro independent schools in a church in 1998 after the department of education rejected his job application.
  • Today Curro is the country’s largest private school business with more than 120 schools and over 47,000 pupils.
  • The recipe for success was providing private school education at the same price level as public schools, he said. 
  • For more stories go to Business Insider South Africa.

After the department of education rejected Chris van der Merwe’s job application, he and his wife Stephanie opened their own school in the vestry of a church in the Cape Town suburb of Durbanville in 1998.

From 28 pupils in its first year, Curro Independent Schools grew to become South Africa’s largest private-school business with more than 120 schools and over 47,000 pupils.

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In an interview with VIA (DStv channel 147)’s personal-finance show Geldhelde, Van der Merwe explained how Curro was able to profit by providing private school education at the same price level as public schools

“There isn’t really a difference between a good government school and a good private school,” Van der Merwe said.

“And that is how it should be because both private schools and government school should serve the country. The state can only do so much.”

He said part of the Curro’s approach is to build schools cost-effectively to reduce tuition fees.

A Curro school in Hermanus (Facebook, Curro Herman
A Curro school in Hermanus (Facebook, Curro Hermanus Independent School)

In 1999, for example, when their first school grew too small, they decided to build a new school with a loan from the bank.

“I literally built the first fully-fledged Curro school with 10 bricklayers and builders,” Van der Merwe said.

“And here we discovered we can give the community affordable private-school education because we built affordably. And to this day that’s part of the recipe.”

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Since Curro listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in 2011, its share price has grown by 700%.

(supplied)
(supplied)

In 2013, Van der Merwe received the EY World Entrepreneur Award. He stepped down as Curro CEO in 2017 to help launch Stadio Holdings, which provides tertiary education. 

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Van der Merwe said the mounting financial pressure on universities created an opportunity for Stadio Holdings.

Within two years Stadio has already started to offer 80 accredited programmes. It teaches 30,000 students on 14 campuses and through distance learning, with a large campus opening outside Cape Town in 2021.

This story has been updated to clarify that Van der Merwe and his wife are not divorced, and correct the number of students Stadio currently teaches. 

Geldhelde airs every Tuesday at 20:30 on VIA (DStv channel 147), with repeats on Wednesdays at 08:30 and Sundays at 19:30.

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