The bright stars of township schooling

John Kane-Berman on the principals and teachers succeeding against all the odds

Unsung heroes among some of our poorest schools

"Everyone can pass given the right environment." So said the principal of a no-fee township school interviewed by this columnist last month. "The community is part of the school and it knows about our discipline and good results."   

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has long known that among the large numbers of failing public schools are some success stories. The best known are suburban schools. But we were convinced that there were success stories among poor township schools too.

And so there are. Visiting several of these, we discovered schools whose achievements shine brightly on the bleak landscape of South African public schooling. Unlike suburban schools, nearly all township schools are prohibited from charging any fees, on the grounds that the surrounding communities are too poor. This means that their only teachers are those provided by the state. By contrast, many suburban schools employ additional teachers financed out of fees levied by school governing bodies (SGBs) with the approval of parents.

A suburban high school we visited pointed out that its additional teaching staff enabled it to reduce class sizes from between 45 and 52 to between 30 and 32. One of our no-fee schools has 50 to a class. 

Whereas many suburban schools are racially mixed, no-fee township schools are almost entirely black. A great many of the parents are unemployed. Many pupils live in shacks. Many rely on the school for their main meal of the day.

Yet some of these no-fee schools produced overall pass rates of almost 100% in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams at the end of grade 12 last year. Achieving 100% for a basic pass is not that difficult.  So we also looked at "bachelor" passes, which are those enabling candidates to enrol for degree study at university.

The national bachelor rate in public schools was 27%. The no-fee schools we visited clocked up between 47% and 54%. This is lower than the bachelor rate of between 65% and 78% achieved in the suburban schools visited. But considering that the no-fee schools cater for much poorer children, have few facilities beyond classrooms, and have no extra teachers, their performance inspires respect.

Looking not only at bachelor passes, but at all NSC passes, our no-fee schools achieved between 81% and 97% in accounting, against a national average of 70%. They scored between 91% and 100% for life sciences, against a national average of 71%. One attained 97% for physical science and another 100%, against a national figure of 62%. These schools include three in Gauteng – Thusa-Sethjaba, Raymond Mhlaba, and Vulaindlela – and one in Lichtenburg, JM Lekgetha.   

As reported in this column a few weeks ago, principals of no-fee schools all emphasised the importance of discipline and of school uniforms. But they also told the IRR that extra tuition was vital. This happens before the standard school day starts, in the afternoons, or on Saturdays. The teachers get no extra pay for these extra hours. Several principals pointed out that it was important to obtain parental support for extra tuition.

Asked for the secrets of their success, these principals spoke of "plenty of extra tuition", teachers "who go the extra mile", and of "great teams of dedicated teachers". The principal of a suburban school – which has 26 SGB teachers in addition to the 36 provided by the state – expressed "huge admiration" for principals of no-fee schools who were able to get staff to provide extra lessons.  

Not one of the no-fee principals voiced complaints or demands (other than some who said they needed more disciplinary powers). There was no reference to the much better facilities available in most suburban schools. These men and women displayed pride in their schools and determination to overcome whatever difficulties they faced.

Independent schools are growing apace in South Africa. Many suburban schools are heavily oversubscribed. But the education of the great majority of South African children lies in the hands of the headmasters and headmistresses running no-fee township schools. The success stories described above deserve acknowledgement, support, and emulation.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.