The power of dreams

2008-05-07 00:00

Despite severe disadvantage, migrant children in a KwaZulu-Natal school are achieving way ahead of their peers. A study by myself (School of Education and Development) and Dennis Francis of the School of Social Science Education at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal (UKZN) set out to understand the ways in which children from other African countries are included in a Durban state primary school. What we found surprised us.

We expected to find evidence of xenophobia, and it is indeed there. What we had not anticipated was that the children are performing remarkably well in school and are strikingly confident and assertive. Anecdotal evidence from other schools suggests that this is a wider phenomenon.

The word “disadvantage” is frequently used in South Africa to explain underachievement in education. Indeed, the migrant children have experienced disadvantage in many ways. Most come from situations of extreme hardship and have fled with their families from countries suffering genocide and war. The journey of getting to South Africa was itself often quite traumatic. One girl reported how her family were frequently under attack while fleeing through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, while a Burundian boy spoke of literally running away from primary school when rebels came to recruit soldiers.

Most youngsters in our study grew up with French and local African languages, and have had to learn English in the school environment. Parents of the children surveyed often work as car guards or security guards, or are unemployed. And xenophobia is a very real experience, with hostility towards them in public places, especially for their not speaking Zulu.

Despite all this, staff at the school report their eagerness to study and to take advantage of every opportunity offered, academically and in sport. Some pupils have performed at levels that would bring credit to the most expensive private school. The youngsters present themselves as citizens of the world, cosmopolitan, self-reliant and assured, but also as committed and taking education seriously. They are interested only in professional or business careers. They also take pride in doing better than other children.

One youngster said that they have a vision but that most South African children do not. A girl spoke about being able to see things from two different perspectives as a result of having come into this society from elsewhere.

The school itself demonstrates the effectiveness of focused management. Racially mixed, but with a majority of local African children, it serves an area of low to middle-income families. It has a policy that respects migrant children and counters xenophobia. By finding ways of supporting migrant children and their families, management is enabling the academic success of the migrants and a rising standard of educational achievement within the school.

We tend to put the responsibility for the success of schools on teachers and managers, but here we see the positive impact of the pupils themselves — although their behaviour clearly reflects the expectations of their parents. The migrant pupils work with each other across ethnic, language and class divisions, and take pride in the number of languages they speak.

An obvious question that arises from the research is why African migrant children display these capabilities to a much greater extent than local South African children. Some individual schools and youngsters in our context succeed admirably despite prolonged disadvantage, but here a whole group demonstrates exceptional performance. How do we explain this?

One possibility could be that the youngsters came from schools in their countries of origin that outperform South African schools. However, most of them came here before going to school there, so if there is any positive effect, it must come mainly from the parents. A second possibility would be that we have a group that had to be assertive and self-reliant to have got here in the first place. Again, though, these qualities would have to be those of their parents, given their ages.

This study though, by stressing the achievement of migrant children, may risk creating greater negativity about South African children, thus contributing to their already well-documented underperformance. Possibly though, what the study reveals, is just how powerful the expectations and aspirations of parents and children may be in schools. If so, do the negative messages about South African education do greater damage to education than such causes as the lack of resources and poverty? The study is currently seeking additional funding to pursue such questions further, initially within the same school.

Many people see the presence of African migrants as a problem in South Africa. In contrast, we now see them as infusing resources into South African society. Not least, they are demonstrating in education what we could be achieving.

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