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Education crisis: A boot camp far from home

'Boys and girls, the level of noise!" a bellowing fatherly voice exclaimed. More than 200 chattering matric pupils were jam-packed into a community hall.

"You must have discussions, but limit the level of noise. Limit the level of noise level, please."

Fred Nassi manages a learning camp set up by the Northern Cape education department for matrics barred from their schools earlier this year. After managing to halt the noise, he continued speaking to the Mail & Guardian at the hall's open doors, saying that a life-skills teacher had just finished teaching the 240 pupils. Just to clarify, he said later, the teacher was not giving a new lesson, but was doing revision with the pupils in preparation for the matric exams that start next week.

The M&G arrived while the pupils were revising by themselves under the supervision of Nassi, a curriculum expert in the province's education department. They were working at makeshift desks – round tables that each accommodated at least eight pupils.

In a smaller room behind the hall, a mathematics teacher was taking his attentive pupils through revision. Of the 366 pupils in the camp, 120 were enrolled for maths, Nassi said.

Most of them are from villages near Kuruman and joined the camp late in July, almost two months after community members protesting over the poor condition of the gravel roads in the area forced 64 schools to close. Eight Kuruman high schools and several village primary schools re-opened a month ago after public protector Thuli Madonsela intervened.

But these matrics remain far from home. After intensive catch-up lessons at a resort in Barkly West, 34km northwest of Kimberley, they were moved to Warrenton to begin revision. They will write their exams in the area, about 275km from Kuruman.

Violent protests
Langberg High School, the only high school in Olifantshoek, a sprawling township 100km from Kuruman, remains shut. Violent protests over poor service delivery and ANC political infighting have also kept pupils out of school.

But of Langberg's 51 matrics, only 28 are in a learning camp, also run by the education department, in Upington. Some of them have been intimidated and kept from attending a camp by striking community members. Two pupils whose homes were petrol-bombed last month for going to the camp have since gone back home.

But the matrics from Kuruman have remained in their camp because, according to department spokesperson Sydney Stander, "we wanted to save what we have achieved with them. A change of environment so close to the exam might distract them. It's better for them to write in the same environment they have been in for the past three months."

But the closure of schools might have a silver lining for the displaced pupils. According to departmental figures, the pass rate in trial exams at the eight affected schools jumped from 51.4% last year to 67.45% this year. These exams were written in the camp.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, when she announced the 2011 matric results in January, listed the John Taolo Gaetsewe region, the matrics' home area, as one of the 10 poorest-performing districts.

"We're now aiming at a 75% pass rate. It's possible for the learners to achieve that," Stander said.

"Taking into consideration that these learners had to flee their communities to be here, it's encouraging. The learners adapted well to the camp. We're impressed at how they are progressing. The fact that their performance in the trial improved is proof of that."

Intensive learning environment
The pupils themselves believe they have had a better education because of the closure of their schools. Besides the intensive learning environment, they have also had the province's crème de la crème of teachers – the education department deployed curriculum advisers and its best-performing teachers to the camp.

The curriculum advisers are subject experts whose full-time jobs are to train teachers, but at the camp they got down to teaching pupils.

"We've been doing our catch-up with curriculum advisers and not our normal teachers," a matric pupil from Langberg said.

"Their tactics are much more efficient. We're more comfortable with the subject advisers in camp than we are with our normal teachers. That is why we were able to adapt to their style of teaching."

The pupil, who wants to study law next year, said he joined the camp early in September, at a time when some of his classmates had given up. "They felt that there would not be enough time to prepare [for the exam] and that it would be better to repeat next year.

"Yes, time was little, but we have been able to cover a lot of work in a short space. The curriculum advisers were incredible."

Barred by intimidation
The pupil challenged reports that all the matrics from Olifantshoek who were not in the camp had been barred by intimidation. "Yes, some were threatened, but there are [also] guys who said their loyalties lie with the community and supported the protests."

For Lerato Mpheng, a matric pupil from Cassel village in Kuruman, the learning camp has revived her hopes of enrolling at university next year. She said the camp had helped her to prepare better for her matric exams.

The environment "changed my attitude towards school and made me focus on my studies. Due to peer pressure back in our school, I would decide whether to attend a certain class or not. But here I have no choice but to attend every class. During school hours rooms are locked, so where would you go, really?"

The pupils usually work over weekends as well and they have seldom been home since joining the camp. They have been accommodated in a well-maintained hostel in Warrenton, about 200m from the community hall.

Mpheng said that the hostel was conducive to studying. She might be far from home but "I don't regret coming here. We have been exposed to the best teachers … [and] a great learning environment. I am now ready for my exam."

Stander would not say how much the department was spending on the camp.

Read more on the Mail & Guardian's education package:

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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