Havens for learning

2008-06-18 00:00

In a study I conducted on trying to understand factors that support girls’ participation and performance in science and mathematics in South Africa, a key factor that emerged was attendance at boarding school. This is rather ironic given the recent press coverage of how bad certain boarding schools are, to the point where the Education Department is considering closing specific schools. It is also tragic, given that a functioning boarding school provides South African girls with one of their best chances to achieve academically, especially in maths and science.

I am not only talking about the excellent girls’ boarding school establishments we have in and around Durban and Pietermaritzburg, but rural boarding schools operating in the most difficult and deprived of conditions. My study specifically explored the dynamics operating in three historically disadvantaged rural boarding schools that are quietly and successfully fulfilling the task of education even in the toughest conditions. What are they doing?

Firstly, sustained time is allocated for academic work and supervised study time in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Extra lessons in science and mathematics are the norm in the schools that participated in this study, even on weekends. While absenteeism and late-coming are major challenges in many schools, boarding schools do not have to grapple with these and spend their time more effectively.

Secondly, girls in these schools do not have stereotypical views normally associated with girls, about who can and cannot do mathematics. They do not believe that boys are naturally better in maths and science than girls and strongly believe that there is no gender difference. This could be attributed to the fact that two of the schools are girls-only boarding schools.

Research elsewhere points to a positive correlation between girls’ achievement in mathematics and them attending single-sex schools. It could also be that teachers have high expectations of the girls and provide them with opportunities to be legitimate contributors in science and mathematics classrooms. This leads to the girls constructing positive science and mathematics identities. Some of the science and mathematics teachers go out of their way to portray these subjects positively as leading to male-dominated jobs that have to be and can be accessed by girls.

Another advantage that the boarding school teachers and girls cited is the safety these schools provided. The need for school-going children and teachers’ safety at this time in South Africa cannot be underestimated. The high prevalence of HIV and Aids, rape and teenage pregnancy and other forms of gender-based violence makes it crucial that schools consider safety a priority.

The principals of these schools cited the safety of pupils and teachers as their top priority, and they work hard to ensure that the boarding facilities are safe.

Consistent with what happens in other African countries, some girls in my study reported that their parents expected them to perform domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning, before or after school. These girls felt that staying on campus gave them enough time to concentrate on their studies, rather than doing other feminine chores in their families.

The boarding school context in these schools also enhances social interaction between teachers and the girls beyond the academic, and allows teachers to attend to the social, emotional, and personal issues that affect the academic lives of the girls.

Evidence from this study suggests that the boarding nature of the three schools contributes greatly to the success of girls not only in mathematics and science, but in other subjects as well. This raises a number of issues.

• How do we ensure that girls from such schools do not lose the enthusiasm for mathematics and science once they get to tertiary institutions?

• How can girls from disadvantaged communities have access to boarding schools where they can be supported to succeed academically? Should we advocate for no- fee boarding schools?

• How do we build on the existing strengths in the system by supporting boarding schools such as these? While these schools are trying to do their best, their boarding facilities are in a bad state as parents cannot afford to pay more fees than they are already paying.

• If teachers are effectively to provide care and support beyond the academic, how best can they be supported for this role?

Researching good practices in South African schools, celebrating them, publicising them and learning from them is vital for us as an educational community. We cannot continue to use well-resourced, historically advantaged schools as a model of schooling that we measure the rest of South African education by. We need, rather, to start understanding how the majority of our schools function, accept this as our working conditions and then begin to work on effective practices within these conditions.

The three rural boarding schools in my study pointed to how this is already happening in South Africa. What we now need to do is build upon it.

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