Love and firm boundaries

Helenne Ulster's school in Yeoville produces 100% matric pass rate despite serving a poor community with meagre resources.

Helenne Ulster's school in Yeoville produces 100% matric pass rate despite serving a poor community with meagre resources.

United Church School in Yeoville, Johannesburg,  breaks the mould when it comes to catering for disadvantaged ­children. It is rated highly within the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa) and consistently achieves a 100% matric pass rate. In the midst of a largely dysfunctional and impoverished urban environment dragged down by crime, drug abuse and a breakdown in ­family structure, the school is home to more than 500 dedicated grade R to grade 12 pupils who are on a path to success. It is able to maintain high standards thanks to its old fashioned values and strong sense of family, which means it offers love, support and security, but also clear ­boundaries for each individual.

‘All for one and one for all’
I am always asked questions about maintaining discipline because children from deprived backgrounds are perceived as being difficult to manage. The truth is that all children from all walks of life want to be valued and loved. They all want the security of belonging to something that makes them feel good about themselves. They all want a sense of hope and to be able to believe in their own potential. That is what we provide. Every adult in the school, from the cleaners to the principal, plays the role of a caring parent. And every older learner is encouraged to be a caring friend to the younger ones. Every problem is shared and when a pupil is in trouble, we ask his or her peers as well as the teachers to help him or her to get through it. “All for one and one for all” is an ethos we ­practise every day.

Firm procedure
Children also thrive when there are clear boundaries. Every pupil knows the school’s code of conduct and understands its policy of zero tolerance regarding transgressions. We would never resort to corporal punishment, but we do have a firm procedure when dealing with serious breaches of discipline. Pupils who do not wish to fit in and who do not respond to our warnings process, supported by counselling, are asked to leave. Fortunately, this happens very rarely as they generally embrace our values and culture.

School uniform gives a sense of belonging
Our strict dress code is part of the discipline that pupils take to enthusiastically. Most of them come from impoverished homes and often receive very little parental support. Uniforms give them a sense of belonging and outsiders often comment on how proud and confident they appear in their uniforms.The school supplies the uniforms to ensure that all pupils own a full school uniform, including a blazer and tie. Pupils who come to school inappropriately dressed are sent home, so they do not make that mistake too often.

Morning assemblies
Our weekly assemblies are the heart of our school life. We do these gatherings a bit differently so that the children look forward to them. There is always some kind of entertainment, because our school encourages children to sing, dance or improvise rap songs and performance is popular with pupils. We invite motivational speakers to inspire pupils to live their best lives. It is also a time for the principal to lavish praise on deserving pupils in front of their teachers and peers. And assemblies are often a platform for reconciliation, because I use them to raise problems. Sometimes pupils who have contravened the school’s code of conduct are asked to explain their behaviour to their peers. Teachers, too, may be called to account when they fail to meet standards. At the same time, pupils are encouraged to stand up and praise those peers who have reformed after committing misconduct. There may be tears sometimes, but these are always followed by hugs and cheers. We do not do things behind closed doors  at the school and we encourage and expect accountability at all levels. Our approach may be controversial, but it works.

A caring culture
We help our pupils cope with the many severe social challenges they face in their young lives, ranging  from hunger to xenophobia, sexual abuse, living in child-headed households, to living with HIV/Aids. We do this with the help of our own professional social worker as well as our affiliation with several social-support programmes. At UCS we set a high academic standard which attracts donor support, which, over the years, has helped us build a computer centre and a maths and science centre. We also attract partnerships with organisations involved in youth upliftment and development, such as the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra and the Living Maths and DreamGirls programmes — the latter helps teenage girls prepare for ­ tertiary education.

Attracting dedicated teachers and stakeholders
Even though we cannot afford to pay competitive salaries we are able to attract dedicated teachers who implement advanced learning programmes because they love working at the school. The result is that a strong team, led by outstanding academic heads, ensures that our standards are met. Past pupils also come back to teach at our school. In addition, we have committed and co-operative stakeholders who include board of directors, Isasa, the provincial education department, parents, corporate donors and neighbouring schools. They are all committed to seeing the school achieve its best possible results. Our school motto is “united we stand” and we live this principle every day. We stand together, we look after each other and we love each other.
Helenne Ulster is a principal and was the co-founder of UCS 21 years ago. For more information, visit

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