United by shared values

9th January 2004 at 00:00
An Essex secondary and a high school in a South African township have forged an alliance. Michael Shaw reports.

Anyone who sees headteachers Margaret Wilson and Charles Marthinussen teasing each other would find it hard to believe that their schools are more than 7,000 miles apart.

Both are eager to talk about the similarities between their lives and their secondary schools, which cater for the same number of pupils.

But while Miss Wilson is a head in a commuter town in Essex, Mr Marthinussen manages a school in the South African township of Atlantis, where hunger and poverty are daily concerns.

"One of my priorities is making sure my pupils are eating healthily," Miss Wilson said. "He has to worry about whether his pupils are eating at all."

The two heads met last term after their schools, King John and Atlantis high, were linked through an exchange programme. The scheme, called Khanya, is supported by the Specialist Schools Trust. Pupils at the two schools are now in regular email contact and will be holding video conferences next term. Mr Marthinussen, a bearish rugby player, has given introductory speeches for Nelson Mandela in front of more than 15,000 people.

Yet he appeared meek in the presence of Miss Wilson, who is bursting with enthusiasm, when she led him around a conference in Birmingham.

"When you talk to other heads you often find them being very negative," Mr Marthinussen said. "I've met someone who is extremely excited and positive about what she is doing. She's a tower of strength for me."

Both heads had tough upbringings. While Miss Wilson grew up on the notorious Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, Mr Marthinussen attended school in the Western Cape town of Wellington at the height of the apartheid era. The injustice of South Africa's education system, which then gave the lion's share of resources to white schools, made him decide to become a teacher.

But Mr Marthinussen was initially banned from teacher training for "political reasons" after his name had been listed by the authorities after an arson attack in 1976.

Pupils at a school in Soweto held a peaceful protest that year calling for improved education. But police responded with tear gas and bullets, sparking student riots across South Africa.

"I had accepted the role of representative for the students at my school," Mr Marthinussen said, quietly. "And the school was burned down."

Miss Wilson also nearly missed out on secondary teaching after leaving school with grades too poor for university. However, she eventually gained a place on a teacher-training course.

There are other similarities. Both were sporting champions: Miss Wilson represented Scotland in athletics and Britain in the triathalon while Mr Marthinussen played rugby for South Africa, when it had separate black and white teams.

When Miss Wilson visited Atlantis high in September she was taken aback by the poverty in the all-black township and the lack of staff and facilities at the school. She was surprised, too, by the similarities to King John.

Both schools place a strong emphasis on uniforms, summer schools, and on giving parents learning opportunities - even offering the same information communications technology course for adults, the European computing driving licence.

Miss Wilson said: "We are on the opposite sides of the earth but our values are the same."


School to school

King John

Location Benfield, a commuter town in Essex

Unemployment Less than 3%

Number of pupils 1,867

Number of teachers 123

Number of support and admin staff 63

Typical teacher-pupil ratio 24 to one

Exam results 65 % five A* to C GCSEs

Atlantis high

Location Atlantis, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town

Unemployment Up to 70%

Number of pupils 1,900

Number of teachers 55

Number of support and admin staff One

Typical teacher-pupil ratio 55 to one

Exam results 100%

passes in national exams

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