Monday 10 November 2014

Educating The Rainbow Nation

I have recently returned from a visit to Cape Town in South Africa. I was given the chance to visit the mother city as part of a school partnership programme funded by the British Council. The partnership, which has been active for three years, is with Pelican Park Primary School in a largely Asian area of Cape Town. The school was chosen as it represents a middle-income context and to challenge the preconceptions that children at our own school have of Africa.

Cape Town
Cape Town is a the type of place that grabs hold of you as soon as you arrive, makes your head spin continually and then sends you home with it having planted itself deep into your heart. Visually, it is a stunning place, dominated by Table Mountain with the inhabitants sandwiched between the mountain and the ocean. The climate is Mediterranean which made it pleasantly warm for my visit. Everywhere you go in Cape Town you can see the mountains and usually the ocean. The city, like the rest of South Africa, is trying to shake off the shackles of Apartheid. Twenty years have passed since the first democratic elections but many of the old issues remain. The people are incredibly warm and welcoming with a passion for good food and entertaining guests. I would challenge anybody to feel unwelcome there. Capetonians see it as their responsibility to make people welcome. I have defintely returned a few pounds heavier!

School Visits
The main purpose of out trip was to teach the children of Pelican Park about Manchester and our school as well as gain experience of teaching classes in another country. Another objective was to visit a range of schools in order to see the full range of the South African education system.

The children were generally intrigued with how school operated in England and of course there were the obligatory questions about Manchester United and had I met the Queen? They were shocked that children started school in England so young as in South Africa they start formal schooling at about 7 year old. Their primary school children stay at primary school until they reach the end of Year 8 (They call it Grade 7). Children must pass end of year exams or they are kept back. The staff were astonished that we didn't keep children back in England!

The class sizes at Pelican Park were very similar to England. However, this was only because the governing body had funded the salaries of some teachers from fund-raising activities. Other schools we visited (except one) had average class sizes of about 40. The children at Pelican Park are generally well-behaved and ready to learn. They come from reasonably well-off families and the community plays a large part in the life of the school. The school hosts regular parent open evenings where the school asks for input from parents on a range of things. The one I saw involved parents getting into groups with a teacher leading each group. They discussed the new behaviour policy the school wanted to adopt. Each group then did a drama sketch on the stage to demonstrate the points they wanted to make! Members of the school governing body were there to help host the event. This event definitely gave me food for thought in terms of involving parents.

State schools in South Africa charge schools fees. These are usually decided by considering what the parents can afford balanced with the amount of money the school needs to raise in order to function effectively. The government pays the salaries of a certain amount of teachers that it decides are enough for the school. The governing body can then employ more teachers if it wishes but these salaries are not paid by the government. For example, a school must reach a certain number of pupils to have a deputy head. This number is decided by the government.

In an attempt to support the large amount of weak teachers in the system, the government have introduced textbooks for all subject areas. These are really dry and mean that children have to carry masses of books around with them! Talking to one ex-headtacher, he said it had been a disaster. The percentage of children passing the Matriculation exams at 18 years old is rising but the pass rate for the exam is around 30% if memory serves me correctly.

The inequalities between schools is nothing short of staggering. Under Apartheid, schools for non-white children were built without corridors or halls. The classrooms were all separate buildings. This meant the children were forced to spend a lot of time outside even when the weather was unpleasant. People in Cape Town told me that they think this was a deliberate move by the Apartheid government to 'encourage' children to drop out of school. This legacy remains in many of the schools visited. I don't know if it's true but it is a pretty chilling idea.

An ex-headteacher took us to visit some schools. He is now a headteacher's mentor - supporting head teachers , particularly those in challenging circumstances. He was a wonderful man, determined to help the next generation of leaders in education despite having retired. The idea of a headteacher's mentor could be a useful one to apply in this country. The first school we visited was Herschel Girls School. It is the top performing school in South Africa. For those of us who have taught in urban state schools, imagine all of the well-behaved, clever girls you have taught and put them into one class. That is what all the classes at Herschels are like. The school fees are more expensive than their University fees. The staffroom looks like the Hilton. A truly stunning establishment.

The next school we visited was a township primary school of 1600 pupils. When we arrived I noticed that there was a hole in the roof. The headteacher explained that the night before all the computers had been stolen! How this woman came to school and carried on was just inspiring. She was immensely proud of her school and what she had achieved. The atmosphere was busy but focussed. It was clear that the staff had worked very hard to get these children ready to learn, many of whom lived in shacks or back yards.

Our final school visit was to a high school in an area called Mitchells Plain. This was an area created when coloured people were forcibly removed from the District 6 area of Cape Town as part of the Group Areas Act in the 1960s. These people were forcibly turned out of their homes/farms and dumped miles out of the city into what effectively became a ghetto with 60% unemployment and sky-high crime rates including major gang issues. It is not somewhere to hang about too long without a guide! The headteacher of the school told us that he had come to an agreement with the gang leaders that they would leave the school alone. There was hill near the school where the two rival gangs solved all of their 'difficulties' as he put it. This involved shoot outs, initiations etc. This was preferable to the previous situation where children at the school would have to dive on the floor as rival gang members shot at each other with the school in the middle! I admit to feeling slightly uneasy just being there never mind teaching there.

All in all, the trip was one I am really glad I was able to make. I got to see the real South Africa that many tourists don't see. I met some amazing people who were incredibly welcoming and honest about the problems they face. They were rightly proud of their city. I wish them all the best of luck as I believe that they have the chance to solve the issues that remain and I sincerely hope that they do.

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