Monday, 09 July 2007

Schools - Is There Hope?

Schools come with a reputation - either it is a school to which you would like to send your child or it isn't - its that simple! The reality is that many school in South Africa find themselves understaffed, battling dwindling resources, trying to maintain aging facilities and struggling to keep up staff morale in light of poor state salaries and increasing class sizes.

It is not all doom and gloom however. Throughout our country schools in various socio-economic settings are making a difference. Learners are receiving good education, educators are going the extra mile and true holistic education is happening.

So what then differentiates the really good schools from the mediocre ones? What is the "x-factor" that makes the difference between a great school in a rural setting and one which is falling apart?

I believe that the difference lies with the person responsible for the school - the headmaster/headmistress. The key is leadership. In 2001 the Sunday Times reported on a school in a remote area of the Eastern Cape, Sandi Senior Secondary School, which improved its matric pass rate from 4% to 93% in just three years! At that time the school did not have electricity, telephones or running water and could only be reached by travelling 40km on a rough gravel road. A young headmaster, 24 years old at the time, Bongi Penyana, began to make some significant changes in the school which brought about this change. He personally recruited 75% of the school's teachers. He encouraged his learners to take subjects at higher-grade level and instilled a love of teaching into his staff. So much so that his team of educators go way beyond expectation to build into the lives of the learner - they come in during the holidays to give extra-lessons, they give their pupils English newspapers to help develop language skills, they take their learners to the doctor when needed and some even bring in chairs from their homes for their classrooms.

If it can happen at Sandi Secondary, why not everywhere else? I truly believe to my core that the key lies with the person at the helm.

This view is shared by the previous headmaster of Westerford High and Queens Park High - both in Cape Town. Alan Clarke spent 16 years as headmaster at both these schools and has just written a book entitled "The Handbook of School Management". In this book he makes the point that schools need to be places where the learners feel they want to be. He also makes the point that large class size should not be as big a stumbling block as some would like it to be. He calls on the government to ensure that adequate help is given to those school heads who have given up hope and who have allowed their schools to degenerate. Read an extract here - "Words Of Wisdom"

For those who sit on the sidelines and criticise the education ministry and the local school, here is a challenge - get out there and visit your local school's head - offer practical support where you can, mobilise community support and be part of the solution!

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