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Humbled by African passion for learning

The South African education system is battling against the odds, but Gavin Clark finds inspiration from both teachers and their students

In 1990 I watched a television programme presented by Michael Buerk detailing his experiences as a BBC reporter in South Africa. I had decided that year to be a modern studies teacher and I found the programme both fascinating and depressing.

I have now been teaching modern studies in Scottish comprehensive schools for 10 years and show the same video, entitled No Easy Road, every year. The programme still captures the essence of an extraordinary country's troubled history. It had a special resonance for me this year as I set off to see South Africa for myself.

The purpose of my visit was to try to understand the role of citizenship and heritage education in the new South Africa. Along with 10 other UK teachers, I visited four secondary schools and four primary schools in KwaZulu-Natal, thanks to funding from the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.

In South Africa everything that is good and bad in human life seems to be on display in a much more intense way than in the UK. There are incredible problems, but there is also an optimism which we rarely see. The trip has left me with a great love for the country, as well as grave reservations about its future.

The state schools are given a certain level of funding from central and provincial government and are then left to charge the fees that they feel are appropriate. Of the eight schools we visited, fees ranged from pound;1.75 to pound;75 a year. All the schools talked of a significant number of learners (the generic word used for all school students) being unable to pay the required amount and most schools go to great lengths to help cashless families sustain the education of their children.

This funding arrangement leaves many schools in a desperate state. Schools that receive piped water and electricity are officially labelled "advantaged". One rural primary we visited still showed fire damage from the apartheid violence that hit it some 11 years ago.

There is not enough money within the system to pay for teachers and resources. Accordingly, many educators (teachers and education officials) voiced disappointment in the lack of progress since 1994. However, those same people were optimistic about many other aspects of the educational system. One teacher put it bluntly: "Where there is nothing, then all you have is hope."

There are some significant differences between ours and South Africa's educational system. Students move from primary to secondary at a later stage, generally when aged 13.

There is a big age range in many secondary classes. In one group of mostly 15-year-olds was a 21-year-old man who had repeatedly failed his exams but was still trying.

Class sizes are considerably bigger than in the UK; most classes we saw had 40-45 students.

Students in "matric" classes, looking to gain the qualifications required for university, have to provide their own textbooks, and even in the most impoverished schools there is strong evidence of parental support for uniform.

Perhaps the biggest difference was apparent in the attitude of students. We were not taken to any of the very worst township schools that hit the headlines as being "ungovernable" but we did encounter severely disadvantaged learners. They all had in common a respect for education and a hunger for learning.

This was a very humbling and inspiring experience for all of the visiting teachers. The students we met simply could not believe that young people in Scotland, with their videos and computers, did not love life. "Tell them to think hard about what they are doing" was a message one student sent back to my own.

KwaZulu-Natal takes heritage very seriously and this seems typical of most South African provinces. Students are now taught from the first year to year 12 about their heritage, including the arts and crafts of their people.

They showed incredible pride and passion when demonstrating traditional dances and songs, often on an impromptu basis. It made for unsettling comparisons with the lack of focus Scottish education gives to this area.

The best heritage education is often intangible. For me, the national anthem, "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika", and the genuine enthusiasm that young South Africans seem to have for it encapsulates all that is good about the country.

Citizenship education was the focus of our trip. Life orientation, as it is known, is a key learning area in the South African curriculum since revised guidelines were published in 2002. The courses aim to develop the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that enable learners to make informed decisions and take appropriate action in a range of areas.

Under social development, for example, a grade 1 learner should be able to identify, draw and colour the national flag. By grade 6 they are reflecting on children's rights and by grade 9, the final year citizenship is taught, students are critically investigating issues of diversity in South Africa.

The programme encompasses a lot more than any UK citizenship programme and it delves deep into the realms of personal and social education. However, it was also a surprise to realise there is no formal sex education in the later years of secondary education.

When we questioned educators it became clear that this recently initiated programme is only now starting to find its feet. South Africa is addressing the complex issue of citizenship education in a positive way, but it will fall to future visitors to assess whether or not the programme is working.

Poverty is one constant in much of the education system. Facilities and resources are often desperately inadequate. Three of the schools we visited had no computer access. Teachers are underpaid and I did not meet a single student who wanted to become one. Most schools had poor sanitation and very basic infrastructure and we also saw clear evidence of undernutrition and malnutrition. In one rural community we visited, official unemployment was 62 per cent.

The major health issue in South Africa is, of course, the HIV and Aids crisis. Throughout the visit we saw clear evidence of the dramatic impact that this is having.

An incredible 50,000 South African teachers have died from the Aids virus in the past five years. An already struggling education system cannot cope with this loss. In most of the schools we visited, some classes simply had no teacher for long periods of time. In such cases the students were expected to sit and read, perhaps for the whole day. In many of the schools, up to a third of the students are HIV positive.

The life orientation programme addresses issues of safe sex but many students still seem remarkably ignorant, despite the enormous "condomise" billboards that are appearing near many schools.

Many of those we encountered still live in "informal" housing. During a tour of Umlazi, Durban's biggest township, we saw the conditions that many students live in. It was hard to equate the immaculate school uniforms and shining faces with the poverty of their homes. That many students attend school at all is a testament to the resilience that many South Africans have.

Politics has a big influence on education in South Africa. The brutalisation of people that took place during the struggle against apartheid has created a generation of under-educated parents and guardians.

Many educators talked of the motivational problems this causes.

Go to South Africa. It is a fascinating country and the exchange of Commonwealth teachers trip is not just a fantastic opportunity to experience it close up, it is also a great chance to discuss ideas with a range of subject teachers from around the UK. We spent our evenings swopping news about what we had found out that day and it was good to have a chance to think about education away from the day-to-day grind.

I would urge anyone teaching the Higher South Africa topic to find out more about this trip. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Gavin Clark is principal teacher of modern studies at Dunbar Academy.

This is an edited version of an article published in the Modern Studies Association NewsLeague for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers,

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