So-called 'struggling' schools that nevertheless succeed convey lessons we need to understand.
I have spent the past year on a journey around South Africa, chronicling the stories of 19 disadvantaged but top-performing schools across the country —from the barren Northern Cape to the green hills of the Eastern Cape and densely populated townships. Through my camera, I attempted to understand what makes these schools work as well as they do.
On this journey, I have met committed principals such as Phadiela Cooper, Bonginkosi Maphanga and Linda Molefe; dedicated teachers such as Sherron Mukwevho, Scara Nkosi and Rere Tlou; and determined pupils such as Andile Makhowana, Prince Kobedi and Lebogang Mgwanya.
They opened up to me and my camera, shared their stories and moved me as they also pushed me to reflect on my own perceptions.
Although I found some answers, my journey raised many questions. What I have seen defies our expectations and stereotypes about what a "struggling" school looks like. The stories of these schools are often hidden, and my friends and other people I have talked to are surprised when they hear about my experiences.
For many pupils in South Africa, education is a lifeline. Almost every pupil I met told me that it is the key to their future. Their schools are working to unlock that door for them.
While each school has its own narrative, similar factors contribute to their success. If I had to choose one word to characterise the success factor, it would be "leadership". Leadership is like a foundational cornerstone — if it is weak, the structure will collapse, but if it is strong then every aspect of the school will be strong.
The leaders I have encountered during the making of the documentary series Schools That Work manage their schools effectively and hold high expectations of teachers and pupils. They create an environment of discipline and commitment to learning, while providing emotional support. Many pupils told me that their school feels like home, their teachers and principal like parents.
Although excellent principals and teachers are crucial, one major factor in a school's success is the determination of the pupils. Their energy and investment in their education contributes significantly to the quality of the school as they push themselves and their peers to achieve more. They don't look only to educators for motivation; they turn to their classmates or inward to themselves.
What I have seen in these schools — extra classes, good teachers, community engagement — is happening at all good schools. But given the crisis in education in South Africa, the very existence of these qualities in schools in disadvantaged communities often instils disbelief.
Many people cannot imagine resilient pupils who arrive at 6am for mandatory study or a lesson on Romeo and Juliet taught by their principal. They can't comprehend that teachers are dedicated, effective and supportive, that they use concrete strategies and get their pupils to love all subjects. And it is sometimes particularly difficult to imagine committed and effective principals who have the vision and capacity to move an entire school community.
A worthy sacrifice
I saw these schools — they do exist. Although I have visited only 19, I know that many more are out there. Educators in these schools fight and sacrifice for their pupils because they know what's at stake. They make the most of what they have — meagre though it often is — which is what makes their schools work. We must support them.
When compared with the rest of the country, these schools have astonishing matric results. South Africa's 2012 matric pass rate was 73%. Some struggling schools get as low as 30%, others in the 60% to 70% range. But the schools I visited are getting 90% to 100% matric pass rates.
People often ask: "So what if these schools have a high pass rate? Are any of these pupils qualifying for university?"
The truth is that some schools are getting high pass rates, but the pupils have such low scores that they don't qualify for further study. But maybe their passing at all is best seen as a first step — perhaps their children will have more opportunities than their parents. There is no guarantee that this will lead to success, but it is certainly a step. Given the crisis in education, we must celebrate baby steps as well as bigger ones.
All the principals I met are pushing for bigger change. They know that if a pupil goes to university it could change the lives of their entire family. So they are aiming for the real prize — that 100% of pupils pass matric and qualify for university or college.
These school leaders know that a basic pass, especially when the government has set the bar so low, means little. A pupil only has to get 35% to pass matric. This is better than failing because a pupil gets the stamp of a pass, but will it really get them further?
Government's low expectations
With such a low passing score, the government is not being realistic about how well a pupil has to do in order to enter the workforce, much less college or university. How are schools expected to have high expectations of pupils when the government doesn't?
When pupils do get accepted, the next question is how they are going to pay for it. One boy in the Northern Cape told me that he and his classmates are motivated to pass but they know that, if they don't get bursaries, they won't get any further than their small town. How can pupils look towards the future when they know that they might not even get there?
Although the state's National Student Financial Aid Scheme offers critical support, I believe that the government should provide more pupils with straightforward bursaries that do not need to be paid back. This will open doors for many pupils and have a beneficial impact on the country when these young people enter the workforce and use their skills to change the circumstances of their families and communities.
Government policy is not the only piece of the puzzle here. Amid the conversation about problems and solutions, the voices of the people at schools are often missing. One principal told me he is frustrated because he is not part of the strategy- and decision-making process. He believes that everything is top-down, from national policy to provincial, flowing down to district offices and then his school. He is not consulted, just told what to do. Few people listen and consider exactly what he or other principals need to be effective.
During conversations about the power of education to change lives, communities and the country, the spectre of apartheid remains. One pupil told me he always thought that urban and white schools were better than his rural school — until his school won the National Moot Court competition. Others know that many of the dire circumstances of their communities are a result of the country's history. This does not deter them, but rather makes them more determined to succeed.
Being globally competitive
Rere Tlou, an English teacher in Mpumalanga, considers the past as he sees his pupils' future. "I want to see my pupils to be globally competing with all other pupils regardless of where they come from," he said.
"The fact that you are coming from the so-called former model C schools doesn't mean that you should be better than my kid who is from so-called former black schools. They must be able to fit anywhere at any university. There is no model C university."
As they nurture pupil potential, teachers are not just trying to nurture academic success, they also want to develop pupils who will be active members of society and contribute to their communities and country. Their pupils have witnessed the transformation in the country and they want to participate in it.
The school leaders I have met know the power of education to change pupils' lives. And their pupils know it too.
These principals, teachers and pupils know what matters. But it is when we all decide that this matters that real change in education can begin.
Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is the last of her Mail & Guardian articles about the video series, Schools That Work, she is directing on disadvantaged schools that achieve exceptional results. The series was conceived by University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen. For more information go to vimeo.com/schoolsthatwork or email [email protected]