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01/02/2018 14:27 SAST | Updated 01/02/2018 14:27 SAST

This Is What We Can All Learn From Our Best Township Schools

Poverty, in the conventional view, explains why township schools are at the bottom of the class – but the exceptions prove otherwise.

Photo Courtesy of UNESCO/ Eva-Lotta Jansson
Nomzekelo Ndibongo, a teacher in South Africa, with her class.

Poverty, in the conventional view, explains why township schools are at the bottom of the class – but the exceptions prove otherwise.

One Gauteng school tells its pupils to send their parents off to bed by 9pm, so that they can do their homework in the only space available... the kitchen table. And if there's no electricity to read by, the school says, children "must use candles".

On the face of it, this secondary school in Tshepisong, west of Johannesburg, is typical of the 88 percent of South Africa's almost 24,000 public schools classified by the department of education as too poor to be allowed to charge fees.

Yet in 2016, it achieved a matric pass rate of 100 percent, with 54 percent bachelor passes – double the national average of 27 percent. It scored 95 percent in accounting, compared to the national figure of 69 percent. Maths and life sciences results were similarly much higher than the national figures.

Life is not a bed of roses for the 1,300 pupils at this Tshepisong school.

This school is one of five no-fee township schools surveyed in the new Institute of Race Relations (IRR) report, "Achievement And Enterprise In School Education", based on a pilot study of 12 top-scoring schools in Gauteng. [As one of the schools in the survey requested anonymity, none are named.]

Life is not a bed of roses for the 1,300 pupils at this Tshepisong school. Some 40 percent of them live in shacks; for many, the meal the school provides every day is their only meal of the day. Many of the parents are domestic workers or work in the mines.

The school library doubles as a staff room; there is a computer lab, but no computers (the lab is used as a normal classroom, as the school is four classrooms short), and the dusty playground doubles as a sports field.

However, as the head of this school told the author of the report, IRR policy fellow John Kane-Berman: "Everyone can pass, given the right environment. The community is proud of the school, and it knows about our discipline and good results. Last year we turned away up to 200 applicants."

What stands out in all 12 township and suburban schools featured in the report – four independent and eight public schools – are key markers of success.

If the school is typical in its setting, its achievements single it out as one of a handful of township schools that are showing what's possible, bucking the trend of a notoriously deficient education offering in the country's most disadvantaged communities – and insisting that education for the poor does not have to mean poor education.

What stands out in all 12 township and suburban schools featured in the report – four independent and eight public schools – are key markers of success. The report argues that if these were replicated across the entire school system, they could play a critical part in a turnaround plan for South African education.

With the exception of one suburban school whose overall NSC or matric pass rate was 93 percent and one township school whose rate was 95 percent, all eight of the secondary schools in the study achieved rates of between 98 percent and 100 percent.

The common factors are the presence of committed, competent principals who manage staff and resources with skill, enterprise and care, devoted, hard-working teachers willing to take on extra tuition and give their all for the benefit of pupils, strong parental involvement to support the efforts of principals and teachers, and an emphasis on discipline – including punctuality, and rules on school uniforms and hairstyles – and on instilling positive values in pupils.

Kane-Berman writes: "Even though (no-fee township schools) have so much less in terms of human and other resources than suburban schools, their principals made no complaints about this. These admirable men and women displayed pride in their schools and determination to overcome whatever difficulties they faced."

As Kane-Berman notes, "the real division in South Africa is not between public and independent schools, but between good schools and bad ones".

Tellingly, the report quotes the headmaster of a no-fee township school as saying: "With or without proper facilities, teachers can be successful."

While overcoming the very real material obstacles facing the bulk of South Africa's schools is a major challenge, a key first step would be giving parents and pupils greater choice, and greater say, by embracing low-fee independent schooling, and by extending the school governing body system to thousands of no-fee public schools.

As Kane-Berman notes, "the real division in South Africa is not between public and independent schools, but between good schools and bad ones".

Giving parents the choice to contribute to schools and thus actively participate in driving improvements cuts to the heart of what Kane-Berman describes as "one of the most important differences" between no-fee township schools and fee-charging suburban schools: the ability of the latter to employ additional teachers.

The report suggests the government reconsider the "no-fee" policy, which could be done by earmarking part of the child-support grant of R350 per month per child up to the age of 18 for school fees. This would have the effect of encouraging greater parental involvement in the school while providing some income for hiring additional teachers.

At fee-paying schools, such teachers are paid by their SGBs rather than by the department. In 2013 fee-charging public schools collected more than R12-billion in fees, which enabled them to employ 37,000 teachers across the country over and above those financed by the state.

And it is the scope of the fee-paying suburban schools, both public and independent, to employ extra teachers that is "the most obvious explanation for the better performance of those schools".

The impact is decisive, evident in comparing the bachelor pass rate – the critical measure which determines the scope of young people to continue studying and ultimately have a much greater advantage in the economy – between the township and suburban schools.

"In township schools," the report says, "the proportion of NSC candidates who achieved such passes ranged between 47 percent and 54 percent. The proportions for suburban schools ranged between 65 percent and 78 percent."

And it is the scope of the fee-paying suburban schools, both public and independent, to employ extra teachers that is "the most obvious explanation for the better performance of those schools".

In the popular mind, "independent" means pricy, but the independent township school the IRR visited charges R1,000 in grade 12, and less in the lower grades. Another of the independent schools in the survey charges R480 a year, although the main finances of the school are provided by an extensive fundraising campaign directed at the private sector.

"From the point of view of the consumers of school education – pupils and their parents – it is immaterial whether a school is run by the state or by one or another kind of private organisation or investor. What counts is the quality of education provided..."

Kane-Berman writes: "More and more parents in South Africa and elsewhere are exercising choice in schooling. This is something to welcome and encourage, especially in South Africa, where apartheid ruled out such choice."

"From the point of view of the consumers of school education – pupils and their parents – it is immaterial whether a school is run by the state or by one or another kind of private organisation or investor. What counts is the quality of education provided..."

Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.