School of dreams

It’s slightly crazy the way it happened, almost like a fairy story. But it has worked well. It’s called the Bedford Country School.

It’s in a grand old two-storey building, spotlessly painted, with a neat green roof, shady trees around and plenty of room for the children to play. There are also areas for them to learn to plant seeds, water them and see them grow into plants, sturdy jungle gym structures and a derelict tractor to “drive”.

A few adults keep an eye on them. Inside, the building it’s big. There’s a central hall with some children, black and white, working on puzzles on the floor, pictures of pirates on the walls painted by the children, and a Punch and Judy stage with a yellow curtain. Several classrooms lead off the room, and down the passage there’s a great carved door with windows that open out to the garden.

The school is in Bedford, about 100km inland from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Previously the building served as a bed and breakfast but, when it came on the market, a group of parents with young children — mainly farmers’ wives who are fully trained teachers — gave it a speculative, rather envious eye. How could they raise the money to turn it into a school?

They were eager to establish locally a desperately needed top-class school that would provide a sound basic education for their own small children and others in the area. Otherwise, they would have to send their children to boarding school.

Out of the blue, two friends on a hunting trip to a nearby game farm, probably charmed by the attractive young teachers, took a look at it and said, yes, they would buy the building. They are Piet du Toit and Richard Aucamp, who are involved in a platinum mine near Rustenburg. They also paid to refurbish the building, from top to bottom. That was in March 2008 and the Bedford Country School opened in January 2009 with 30 pupils. Now there are 52.

Apart from Rene Park, the principal, there are two other qualified teachers, Adri van Niekerk and Ammie Pringle, and two assistants who are taking courses to improve their qualifications — Phindi Patosi and Taryn Foulds. Jenny Rush comes in to teach isiXhosa. Van Niekerk and Patosi are in charge of the 15 pre-primary children, Park and Foulds teach the 23 in grades R and one, and Pringle is the grade two and three teacher. She has 14 children in her classes.

The school is registered as a private school with the education department and the fees are R1 200 a month for grades one to three, R880 for children in grade R, and R650 for pre-school children.

The school’s motto is “learning and loving it”, and it seems to work. When you walk past the classrooms, you hear a buzz of voices but no strident disciplinary voices. Park says perhaps the teachers manage so well partly because they are themselves young mothers. She says: “I think I was different as a teacher before I had my children.”

In addition to the national curriculum, the school is registered with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa as an eco-school. The aim is to teach the children to be resourceful, less wasteful, inventive and more mindful citizens.

It works, says Pringle; they are even teaching their parents — “like when they tell their moms not to leave the tap running when they brush their teeth, and to turn off the light when they leave a room”.

Recycling lessons are fun. The double sink in a doll’s house they constructed is made from plastic holders from a box of chocolates. Pringle hopes that after a series of courses the school will graduate as a fully fledged eco-school at the end of the year and be entitled to fly the valued national eco-school flag. One morning a group of children file out of the hall and into the garden, happily singing. Was it a singing lesson?

Yes and no. Indeed the children were learning a new song but they were singing it in isiXhosa, so they were having a language lesson as well, learning how to say “hello”, “how are you?” and some basic conversation at the same time.

Apart from singing songs (and learning dances) the children are taught how to follow and read music from grade R, and how to play instruments such as the triangle, drums and tambourine in a mini orchestra.

And computers? They are lined up around the computer room, spick and span. The children learn to handle a mouse at age three and when one of the children’s grandparents were about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, their grandchild said: “Don’t buy cards to invite people to the party; I’ll design them on the computer.” Which she did, aged five.

Park said they could not have got the school going so well without the continual help of the community. For example, in a town where everybody is on first-name terms, “Jean down the road is letting the school turn a neighbouring vacant plot she owns into a sports ground, children can get swimming lessons at Sylvia’s pool, Bruce offers tennis coaching, the local minister teaches golf, Mike teaches fishing — and there’s a former Kaiser Chiefs player every­body calls ‘Bash’ who sometimes coaches soccer”.

Donations help. The computers were “passed on” from a school that was “upgrading”. And so on. At the auction held at the school as one of its many fund-raising affairs, many bidders pay generously — then return the goods for them to be auctioned again. All takings go to the school. And there’s a special fund to subsidise children who need financial help.

Park plans to extend some outbuildings to accommodate the pre-school children by the start of the next school year, when the total enrolment is expected to top 60. “When the children leave us after grade three, they will probably go to schools in Grahamstown or to schools in Port Elizabeth,” says Park.

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