In 2012, I became interested in a school that was increasingly successful despite operating in a badly disadvantaged community. It is a high school in a poor, peri-urban community that serves black learners. It borders the rural community of Klapmuts and the urbanised area of Kraaifontein, which is about 40km away from Cape Town’s central business district.
The area was an informal settlement until 1998 when the government started building houses as part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The school’s results have consistently improved since 2010. A school that serves the same community and is less than a kilometre away is not achieving the same success.
I wanted to know how, against the backdrop of a public education system that is fraught with problems, the school – which I will not name to protect learners’ privacy – has improved its results so much.
Opportunities and support
The question at the heart of this study was whether getting learners more involved helps to boost school performance. The voices of learners and alumni are often marginalised in studies that explore school success. This study used qualitative research to acquire rich, deep data from these groups – who are, after all, fundamental to any school’s success.
Opportunities and support emerged as two important factors. Learners who said they had been supported by their parents felt this had bolstered their autonomy, their discipline and their chance to succeed at school. One learner said:
[My parents] supported me physically, financially and emotionally … [they] motivated me by telling me how they were living in the past and they only wanted the best for me to achieve success.
Teachers were supportive, too. Learners said they were able to talk to their teachers about problems at school or at home. For instance, learners told their teachers that they were struggling to study in their homes. Many lived in homes with only a single room and shared the tiny space with their entire family.
The school responded by keeping classrooms open until 9pm. On most days, teachers stayed late to help learners with their work. When teachers weren’t available, prefects were given the responsibility for locking up. They were held accountable for the condition of the classrooms the next day.
Learners and alumni said the school had organised events that exposed them to life beyond their own impoverished community. They went to the theatre and attended extra classes at universities. Learners said opportunities like these had motivated them to succeed and given them the belief that they could climb out of poverty.
The principal was singled out for praise, as he organised many of the theatre trips and extra classes himself. He was approachable and perceived as listening to learners’ concerns. This boosted learners’ self-confidence. One alumnus told me:
The principal was always there for us making sure that we pass and that we all get good results. I remember a term when I failed; he called me in his office and told me it is not over until it is over. It was the June exams that I had failed [and there were still final exams in November to lift the results].
Communication also played a crucial role in the school’s success. Learners were informed about issues at the school. The principal and teachers were open with them about changes and developments. The learners weren’t necessarily involved in making decisions but they were allowed to openly discuss their concerns and felt they had a real influence. This contributed to learners feeling like they were part of the school community and had an important role to play.
Learners also communicated with each other in a supportive way – they motivated their peers and engaged in healthy competition to succeed academically.
Lots more to learn
The school I studied did not have access to state-of-the-art technology. It used what was available to encourage learners and to provide them with opportunities for personal and academic growth. It’s clear that these measures can be applied in all schools, even those that lack basic resources and infrastructure.
This study shows that learners have a great deal to contribute to the discussion about education in South Africa and that their voices should be taken seriously.