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Centres of hope for a new tomorrow

Andy Walker visits two science education complexes in a remote part of South Africa which are seen as launching pads for change. Can science lead the way towards a new school curriculum in South Africa? Two science centres in a rather desolate part of the Northern Transvaal, set up by the now disbanded homeland government of Gazankulu, are pioneering a fresh and exciting approach to curriculum development and they believe that science education points the way to the future.

But their future is uncertain. There is vast confusion as the new provincial governments struggle to unite the four separate departments that used to administer education under apartheid, and come to terms with a system that contains schools ranging from the most advanced in the world to those that are little more than primitive mud shacks in the countryside. A half of black schools are without electricity or running water and many are still "farm schools" owned by the farmers on whose land they are located, or run by impoverished communities who can afford little more than the seats the children sit on.

The ANC reconstruction and development programme calls for an education that will encourage teachers and children to think creatively and adopt a problem-solving approach to learning but there are tremendous obstacles to reform.

The curriculum is still hopelessly unbalanced and this can be seen clearly in science. I recently visited schools in the Northern Transvaal where there is no requirement for any equipment or any practical hands-on experiments and so children and teachers find science unexciting. The sole purpose is to get children through exams but even here the system fails; the pass rate in science at matriculation is around 20 per cent, and in maths it is only 10 per cent.

While teachers in Britain grapple with ever more exams, South African teachers have monthly exams to set and mark. Teachers often have little more knowledge of science than what they learned at primary school, because at education college they merely repeated the curriculum they had already done. They may have just one piece of science equipment: the textbook they used at school. In some cases the school will have had science equipment delivered by the local authority but all too often it will remain locked in the principal's office for fear it will be misused or broken.

So how could a system designed to exclude blacks from proper science education on the grounds that they didn't need it be overcome? When teachers in the newly formed Gazankulu homeland applied for computer technology and electronics kits they were told that it wasn't appropriate. There were no opportunities, it was said, for blacks with that sort of training and they were told to stick to agricultural studies. As far as the authorities in Pretoria were concerned, Gazankulu was a pool for migrant labour, not an educated workforce.

But Pretoria had not reckoned on the energetic premier who took control in Gazankulu, Dr Ntanwanisi, who proved remarkably successful in prising money out of the government for his development schemes. Roads, housing and schools began to emerge and, in response to a scheme proposed by Dr A W Pell, a science consultant from Nuneaton, two remarkable science centres have been built.

They are remarkable because they offer the latest in first-world science education at the heart of a third-world country and they are staffed almost exclusively by black teachers. Laboratories for physics and chemistry, computing equipment, library, study areas, sound recording studio, video editing suite, equipment workshops and three mobile trailers equipped with computer console, television set, generator and water are among the facilities they offer. The headquarters centre of Giyani in the far north boasts the only Foucault Pendulum for measuring Earth rotation in the African continent. From the same centre students have tracked orbiting satellites and received weather maps.

So are these centres a model for future South African education or are they, as some already claim, expensive showcases with little practical value? "Prepare to be changed if you pass this sign," says a notice at the entrance to Giyani and change is what these centres are all about. Teachers who attend weekly courses are encouraged to test and improve the science curriculum by looking at their own local needs and environment, and devise materials they can use back at their own schools. A week after they finish their course a van arrives from the centre to deliver the equipment they have been trained to use. School principals, for years the front-line administrators of apartheid, placemen of the Pretoria government, have joined sessions and been persuaded to become supporters of change.

For Matthews Mhlongo, the director of the Giyani centre, science encourages children to think and question, because it simply can't be taught in theory only, it has to be taught through observation and testing. "We need engineers, technicians, lawyers and people who can run the growing tourism business here (Giyani is very close to the Paul Kruger Game Reserve and to Zimbabwe). We need people who can think and plan."

Each centre runs classes in electronics, physics, biology, chemistry and computing for children from up to 60 schools. Pupils who show extra promise can be selected for intensive training at one of three secondary schools in the region which offer science, while they continue to attend the centres for top-up experience.

The mobile units are used mainly for visits to outlying secondary schools as part of a science-awareness campaign. They were designed and built locally and would make more trips out if there were the staff to run them. A major problem, says Matthews Mhlongo, who recently completed a Masters degree at Bristol University, is that the children rarely have toys and so come to school without any experience of handling mechanical things.

The aim, he says, is to include all schools in the region in a new syllabus by the year 2006 and instead of starting science at 11 years old as they do now, they want to start at the age of eight. If their progress so far is anything to go by, the number of young people going on to study at college and university should have gone up dramatically by then. At the beginning of the past academic year 130 students from this remote region started courses in science and engineering, including six at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, where they were the first black students to go on to that course.

Matthews Mhlongo believes the Giyani method is the way to produce people who will develop the new South Africa. But he wonders whether the other four science centres originally planned for the region will ever come about. Will the new authorities have the determination, or the funds, to follow along the same path. Interest has been shown from as far away as Kenya, where there are a number of science development schemes, and from Malawi. "It would be a pity," says Dr Pell, "if the future of this scheme lies in Greater Nairobi rather than in Greater Johannesburg."

Andy Walker is an independent television producer who worked in education at the the BBC and went on a research trip to look at the potential for the use of video in science education in South Africa.

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