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The low quality of South African schooling has been widely confirmed through international tests of mathematics and literacy. The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results indicate that 78% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning. In this context, it is useful to ask whether there are exceptions to the norm: are there schools serving the poor that produce at least adequate levels of learning? This brief describes the findings of a rigorous search process to identify high-performing primary schools accessible to the poor, with a specific focus on three provinces: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. While we failed to find high-quality no-fee schools, variation in learner performance exists among no-fee schools suggesting that improved levels of learning quality are attainable.