Farm learners go the mile - just to get to school

Learners living on farms get transport to township schools, but involvement in school activities is difficult because they live so far away. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Learners living on farms get transport to township schools, but involvement in school activities is difficult because they live so far away. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

At 5am the children on Witklip farm are up, getting ready to take a 90-minute bus journey along the rutted road that leads to their new school, Kgoro Primary in Zithobeni, a township north of Bronkhorstspruit. If it has rained the night before, the bus is unlikely to make the treacherous journey. Once at Kgoro Primary, the Witklip farm learners will probably share a classroom with 42 other children.

Over the past two years, the Gauteng department of education has closed down 19 farm schools across the province.
According to Oupa Bodibe, the acting spokesperson for the department, there are various reasons for the closures of these schools and they include a decreased learner enrolment with no prospects of growth, challenges with the cost-effectiveness of maintaining the school and the inferior quality of education because of multigrade teaching.

Theresho Primary School, which is situated on Witklip farm, is one of the schools that was closed down at the end of 2014. This decision was taken by the department because only 86 children were enrolled at the school. Theresho had five teachers – which is in accordance with the department’s 30:1 learner-to-educator ratio.

But Theresho Primary, which catered for grade R to grade 7 learners, had only five classrooms for all eight grades, resulting in some grades sharing classes.

If it has rained the night before, the bus is unlikely to make the treacherous journey. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The greatest challenge for Refilwe Manganyi, who was an English teacher at Theresho Primary, was conducting lessons with more than one grade present in a class.

“I would be teaching the grade 4 learners while the grade 5 learners were also in the class. It was difficult to keep them focused.”

Manganyi says that learners were disadvantaged at the farm school, leaving her concerned about learners’ progress and whether they were receiving an adequate education.

“We had one hour to teach two or three grades at a time, which meant learners were not getting enough attention,” said Manganyi.

“The buildings of these schools have been handed over to the farm owners and learners from these schools have been transferred to schools within their vicinity. In cases where learners require scholar transport, the department has made provision for that,” said Bodibe.

Currently Kgoro Primary has 1 460 learners and 35 teachers, along with four grade R teachers.

Kgoro Primary exceeds the learner-to-educator ratio that the department has set. Principal Hilda Phoofolo acknowledges that each class has an average surplus of six to eight learners, but says this has not affected the quality of education at the school. “This year, there are more learners enrolled than we had expected. The reason for this seems to be that many parents have moved to Bronkhorstspruit for work, bringing their children with them.”

Phoofolo believes the merger between Theresho and Kgoro was a good call by the department, but says it also comes with its difficulties. Learners from Theresho initially struggled to adjust to a larger school population and distance makes it hard for them to be involved in extra-mural activities.

Distance makes it hard for the farm learners to be involved in extra-mural activities.

Distance and the shortage of transport in farming areas also affects the school’s relationship with the learners’ parents and guardians.

“Parental involvement is quite low with learners that live on the farms,” says Phoofolo. “They are unable to attend parents’ meetings due to the lack of transport.

“The school took the decision to have meetings on the weekends so that parents can attend meetings.”

The department provides transport for the learners, which collects them at 5am and leaves the school at 2pm. “I feel bad for the learners in grade R and grade 1. They have to travel so far and long for school at such a young age,” says Manganyi.

Phoofolo says she is committed to helping where she can to make the learners’ lives better, but some things are beyond her control.

“When it rains, there are a lot of absentees because the farm roads are so bad. The learners often fall behind and educators have to help them catch up.”

The school is a lifeline for the poor farm children. Phoofolo reckons the meal they get at school at 11am is probably their only meal in a day. Considering their poor socioeconomic conditions, Phoofolo wonders how many of the learners will complete their education.

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho Pilane is a health journalist at Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect. She was previously a general news reporter at the M&G. Pilane holds two degrees in media studies from Wits University. Read more from Pontsho Pilane

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