Educating against all odds

2009-03-06 00:00

Visiting Sizisizwe Secondary School in the Highflats area is a confusing experience, leaving one feeling both appalled and amazed. Appalled by the conditions under which teachers and pupils function, amazed at the enthusiasm and commitment of staff determined to educate against all odds.

The visit was with a group of around 40 student teachers currently studying for a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) at the faculty of education on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. A field trip to an under-resourced rural school forms part of their course.

“The field trip is arranged near the beginning of the year and its benefits are felt powerfully throughout the year,” says lecturer Jane Pennefather. “An experience like this challenges the stereotypical notion of excellence and raises a reflectiveness about issues of resilience. It also gets the students to think about working in rural schools.”

There is a huge need for teachers in rural areas. According to Minister of Education Naledi Pandor, more than 75% of newly trained teachers move to urban areas. There is resistance to being placed in rural schools and few would-be teachers imagine themselves pursuing a career in such schools. The field trip is designed to challenge such perceptions and also demonstrate the challenges of teaching in a rural setting.

Even the drive to Sizisizwe was an eye-opener. Overnight rain had continued into the morning and just before the turn-off on to the dirt road to Imhlamvini, a call from principal Nkosiniphile Kwane advised us to take the longer route via Highflats as mud would make it difficult for the coach to negotiate a steep hill. The detour added an extra hour to the journey.

“This brings home to students the problems encountered by teachers in rural schools,” said Pennefather. Already isolated, rural schools become even more so when it rains, sometimes making it impossible for teachers to get to work. At Sizisizwe the headmaster commutes from the South Coast and the deputy principal from Ixopo, while several teachers make do with rudimentary accommodation close to the school during the week, returning to their homes at weekends.

“The problem of teaching in rural schools is not just about educational resources,” says Pennefather. “It’s also about what accommodation there is for the teachers and about transport.”

* * *

Sizisizwe Secondary School stands on the top of a low, windswept hill. Its four classroom blocks and an administration block are surrounded by wire fencing. In 2003, the school had a matric pass rate of 93%. Then the pass rate began to decline. In 2008, after a low of 27% in 2007, it was 36%.

“The school is currently underperforming,” says Kwane. This doesn’t reflect a change of leadership. He instead pinpoints a lack of staff and the school’s inability to retain staff. “Each year we have to recruit teachers and there is also a problem of under-qualified teachers. Staffing is very challenging.”

Currently, there are 13 teachers at Sisisizwe. For an urban school of comparable size, the norm is 46. And 2009 being an election year does not bode well. “It is estimated that 10,9% of teachers will be absorbed into politics — as councillors, members of Parliament and director generals,” says Kwane. “We are unable to retain teachers.”

Staffing issues also affect the ability to deliver the curriculum. “If you want to produce marketable pupils, which elective curriculum do you choose? Say you choose K. Can you educate to teach that? Do you have the staff and the buildings to carry out that curriculum?”

Teachers in business studies and Afrikaans have left the school and these subjects are no longer being taught. “That’s when the crisis started, when we couldn’t replace teachers,” says Kwane. “If staff leave, you have to stop teaching that subject. We are too limited as a school.”

Many of Kwane’s concerns are echoed by Fidelius Hadebe, principal of Mazongo Primary School, one of the biggest primary schools in the area and a feeder school to Sizisizwe. He says his major challenges relate to admissions, bullying and vandalism, grade progression and a lack of resources.

“There is a lack of classrooms,” says Hadebe. “It is very difficult to teach 91 children in one class. We are running out of space. This leads to lower standards of education. Because of such conditions, teachers leave for urban schools. We have lost three teachers to urban schools.”

Problems of pupil progression relate to the legal dictate that pupils can only stay in a particular grade for so many years, regardless of whether they meet the requirements for moving up a grade. “For example, they are not ready for Grade 4; yet, because of the law they must progress. They go on to Sisisizwe and then Kwane has a problem with children that can’t read and write.”

Mazongo is also a pilot school for inclusive education, accepting children with mental and physical disabilities. “Teachers go on workshops and go to special needs schools to observe how to handle such children,” says Hadebe. “They come back and give workshops for the other teachers.”

Hadebe says such children are inevitably slow starters and this leads to a general lowering of standards. What happens when such children are “progressed” on to Sisisizwe? “Once they leave primary school, they are no longer ‘pupils with special needs’,” says Hadebe. “But we have to ‘progress’ them.”

Both schools have experienced the negative impact of the imperative to teach in English. “This is the biggest challenge for second-language pupils,” says Kwane. “English is becoming a barrier to understanding. Pupils are unable to interact with English texts.”

This is demonstrated by the matric results in the Sisonke District Municipality. The top-performing schools are schools where English is the home language of the majority of the pupils. It is cold comfort that Sizisizwe was the highest performing school in its ward and came 41st out of 77 schools in the Sisonke Municipality — an indicator of the overall low pass rate for the area.

Just by walking around Sisisizwe, one can see that it’s under-resourced. “We would like a library and a laboratory,” says Kwane, “but other schools are built out of ‘mud and poles’. Other schools are under-resourced compared to us. They get the priority.”

In some respects, the partnership with the faculty of education at UKZN is a lifeline for Sisisizwe. “We had 14 student teachers deployed here over 2007 and 2008. The pupils experienced multiculturalism as practice, not theory. And we received people with the latest teaching skills. They were very effective towards the delivery of our vision.”

Sisisizwe’s vision, says Kwane, “is to provide quality education and to use all possible resources to achieve this”.

Kwane is under no illusion about the uphill nature of realising that vision. “But despite that, education has to happen at Sisisizwe. We have to educate so that people know we are here. We need to produce quality pupils who plough back into the school.”

• Stephen Coan can be contacted at

What students had to say

What previous students had to say about the field trip and placement at a rural school:

“The field trip helped me to define why I want to become a teacher — what inspires me. Despite my more privileged background, I wanted to make a difference there. I felt I could learn from being there.”

“It was an eye-opening experience — it made me ask deeper questions about the challenges.”

“It teaches one not to rely on resources to teach pupils, but to develop one’s own personal knowledge and strengths.”

“After placement: I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t apprehensive about coming here. I had many expectations and conceptions of what to expect. Some have turned out to be true and some an illusion. When I was told I was going to a rural school, everyone looked at me. Me? Never! I couldn’t go to a school where teachers get stabbed to death, where I’d teach under a tree and not be able to understand anything anyone said. But here I am and was I ever so wrong. The teachers and pupils are absolutely welcoming and accepting. These children are thirsty for knowledge and so long as you are willing to offer them what they need … then they are appreciative and grateful.”


Partnerships between universities and rural schools are designed to challenge perceptions that prospective teachers might have about working in such schools. This is done via an initial field trip to an under-resourced rural school and the later placement of students to teach in these partner schools.

“The partnership between the university and the school operates both ways,” says Jane Pennefather, lecturer at the faculty of education on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “It benefits the school by contributing to the mentorship of future teachers, who get a sense of professional responsibility as well as learning from the pupils. It provides an authentic learning experience and closes the gap between theory and practice.

“As a consequence of being a partner in teacher education, the school is offered new challenges that allow it to develop and reach a higher professional status,” says Pennefather. “Teachers become aware that their knowledge and experience represent a valuable input in the training of student teachers.”

Through the students, teachers in remote schools get access to different teaching methods and current debates that keep them in touch with the mainstream and inspire them to grow in the profession. “A significant number of teachers from the partner schools have now enrolled with UKZN for a B.Ed Honours degree and advanced certificates in education,” says Pennefather.

“Pupils, via the students, get a sense of the wider world and the opportunities for them. Partner schools also have access to university resources. Pupils come to the university and this helps to break down barriers and perceptions about tertiary education.”

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