I recently spent time at five schools that serve mostly disadvantaged pupils, but consistently achieve high matric pass rates. They are schools that defy the odds. How do they do it?
Given the deficiencies of national and provincial education, highlighted by the Limpopo textbook crisis, it is important to consider other, more hopeful examples of school leadership.
"It's easy to identify problems continually," said Verna Jeremiah, principal of the Heatherdale Secondary School in Heidedal in the Free State, "but every problem has a solution. That is our motto."
One solution is setting aside Monday and Friday as "motivational days" when she and other school leaders visit classrooms to encourage pupils.
All five schools have after-school and Saturday classes and are linked to local organisations to provide educational programmes and donations and find ways to fill the gaps in the pupils' lives and learning careers.
A Safe space
Nelson Ma'Afrika leaves his school, Masiphumelele High, open until 8pm on weekdays and all weekend so that the pupils, who live in this congested Cape Town township, have a safe, quiet place to study.
Community members provide security and watch over the school.
One result has been the rise in his school's matric results from 28% to 85% in seven years.
Another principal, Owen Bridgens, of the Mondale High School in Mitchell's Plain, takes the grade 11 pupils to open days at local colleges and universities every year. He also makes sure that almost all his matric pupils apply for tertiary study.
"A school is there to ensure that the community gets uplifted," Bridgens said, "and the way you do that is by educating their children properly."
Kobus Hendriks of the Louis Botha Technical High School in Bloemfontein shares Bridgens's view that education does not only mean books. Both schools promote sport to show pupils that if they can succeed on the field, they can do it in the classroom as well.
The emphasis on teaching and learning at the schools was striking. "You show up, you are prepared and you teach," said one teacher of an approach common to them all.
One pupil said at her school "the teachers are always in the class with the students".
Fending for themselves
These schools' approach to teaching and learning should not be unique to them, particularly not the expectation that teachers should be on time and actively involved in teaching — these should be the norms. But we know that too often pupils are left alone in classrooms to fend for themselves.
"We are successful because we are doing what we are supposed to do," Hendriks said.
Skahle Nhlabathi, who teaches life sciences in Masiphumelele, described teaching in another way: "We have taught if the learners have learned. If the learners cannot give back what you have been teaching … you must try and think of another strategy," she said.
Essentially, this is pupil-driven education and its results can be profound. The pass rate in her subject last year was 92%, so clearly it is working.
The principals of these schools know that quality teaching and other support will determine their pupils' futures.
Jeremiah said one of the biggest challenges she faced was to get pupils to continue studying.
"It's an incredible task to give those students self-confidence and to take them on a journey of ambition so they believe that life doesn't just end beyond Heatherdale's fence," she said.
Believing in themselves
Phadiela Cooper, principal of the Centre of Science and Technology school in Khayelitsha, agreed with her, but said: "It is difficult to get students to believe in themselves when they haven't had the opportunity to do so before."
A lack of self-confidence is not surprising if you are raised in a place where there is little hope and opportunity, which is also why it takes extraordinary men and women, such as the principals and teachers I met, to support young people.
These principals are all strong leaders. Some emphasise structure and discipline, others emphasise love and respect for pupils, but all believe in supporting the whole child and involving parents and the community in their efforts to help the children to succeed.
They have integrity, holding teachers and pupils accountable, but also practise what they preach. Living in times such as we are in now, when news about schooling is dominated by reports as devastating as those about Limpopo, it is encouraging to know that these people are working hard for our children.
These principals demonstrate that strong leaders can create a culture that encourages teachers and pupils to do better. The challenge for South Africa is to produce more leaders such as these. It is only with strong leaders that we will begin to chip away at the crisis in education.
I would like to see all schools, in their own way, do what Ma'Afrika tries to do for his pupils. "We give them hope," he said. "I just can't describe how much the teachers are doing to make those learners feel valuable about themselves."
He said: "What is important is that it becomes everybody's business — everybody works on it.
"And there is also the respect that we give to our learners: it makes them feel human and then it makes them kind of know that they count."
The education of our children is everybody's business. Should we not all make them know that they count?
Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker whose recent video series, Schools That Work, was commissioned by Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. Her previous films include Where Do I Stand? and Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa. To view the videos, go to vimeo.com/schoolsthatwork, or for more information email: schools[email protected]