Shirley Makenete's class has 56 pupils. But the infant teacher works wonders - thanks partly to the efforts of a trust that dispenses books and teacher training. Robin Campbell reports on a remarkable school in Soweto.
Mathilda Giwu,the principal of St Peter Claver Catholic Primary School in the Pimville district of Soweto, offers a warm welcome to visitors to her school. And she is sufficiently confident of the education that her 650 children receive that she allows visitors the freedom to roam around the classrooms.
On the morning of my visit, Shirley Makenete's class of five and six-year-olds is taking part in a shared book experience. She talks to the 56 children, who are sitting on the floor in front of a big book, My Family, about the cover. "What's the cover for? Where are the words?" The children respond : "It tells about the story", "It says what's in the book", "At the top".
They go on to discuss each of the pages of the book - and then the teacher encourages the children to sing a short song: "I like my family, my family, my family.
I like my family, because they love me too."
None of this might seem unusual - but these children are working in a language that is not their mother tongue. At home, they speak Zulu or Sotho. Their parents send them to St Peter Claver because they want them taught in English. Lessons in their mother tongues are limited to an hour each day.
Shirley Makenete says it is difficult to give the children the individual attention they need - and there can be no doubt that resources are a major problem. But the children, their families and the community have the positive perceptions of education that allow teaching and learning to flourish. Somehow, the parents manage to contribute a fee of 450 rands (about Pounds 75) a year. The school is also a beneficiary of the READ Educational Trust, which provides South African schools with books and other materials and offers courses for teachers encouraging a less mechanistic approach to teaching than is the norm at most teacher-training colleges.
READ has been going for nearly two decades, and in recent years has received substantial support from South African and overseas donors. It has supplied books to more than 2,000 schools, providing as a basic minimum for each class 60 books stored in the classroom and a further 60 books in sets for group reading. READ has also provided training for more than 70,000 educators. It now has 11 regional centres.
The READ staff for Soweto, Thandi Khumalo and Lindiwe Nuse, are my guides at St Peter Claver. They are helping staff there and in many other Sowetan schools to develop a meaning-based story-book approach to support children's literacy development.
Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of high-interest, well-illustrated story books in helping second-language children to learn to read English. Professor Warwick Elley of New Zealand has compared South African schools using a story-based approach with those still emphasising rote learning, and his findings suggest that children taught with story books are a year ahead when they finish primary school.
In Christine Bothibedi's class at St Peter Claver, the 42 10-year-olds are organised into five groups for their reading sessions, which are at least twice-weekly. Each child has a copy of the book being read, and they are familiar with the way the session develops. First, look at the cover. What is the book about? Look at the pictures. What do they tell us about the book? Now read the book in turns.
In one of the groups, 10-year-old Precious leads the reading of a story about Martin Luther King. At one stage, she reminds another child: "Pay attention to the punctuation." The use of a capable reader as leader appears to be an effective way of supporting teaching and learning in such a large class. Not only do the children read in English, they read expressively.
The children show their understanding of the storyline by comparing King with their president, Nelson Mandela. One child has a book mark made from a picture of Mandela. "That's my president," he tells me proudly.
Robin Campbell is professor of primary education at the University of Hertfordshire. He visited Soweto as part of a project, funded by the Overseas Development Agency, supporting literacy development in South Africa.