30 Inspiring Drum Women | The pursuit of good education for all: Yandiswa Xhakaza’s quest

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Being principal of UCT High School isn't anything like what she'd imagined when she was invited to apply. But it's been her best career move yet, says Yandiswa Xhakaza.
Being principal of UCT High School isn't anything like what she'd imagined when she was invited to apply. But it's been her best career move yet, says Yandiswa Xhakaza.

Her applications to “better” schools were rejected twice. And the rejections nearly broke her – at the age of six and at age 13.

But her experiences of attending Xhosa medium-instruction schools made her the person she is today.

The year her Paarl, Western Cape-based father begged Yandiswa Xhakaza’s grandmother to let her and her sister move from eGcuwa (Butterworth) to go live with him in a different province where there would be better school for the young girls was life-changing for the education and social activist.

Even though the English instruction-school she’d applied to get into in Grade 1 had rejected her, after six years of Xhosa Mother Tongue Instruction at eNcaphayi Primary School eGcuwa, Yandiswa easily outperformed the other pupils who had been taught mainly in English throughout their schooling at her new Paarl primary school in Grade 7.

Confident of her intellectual abilities, she applied to gain admission at one of the Western Cape town’s top Catholic girls’ high schools. Then came another rejection and heartbreak that her father would not let her wallow in for too long, adamant that there were many other good schools Yandiswa could still pick from in Paarl.

He turned out to be right because at Paarl Girls’ High, which Yandiswa subsequently successfully applied to, the education-activist-in-the-making began to find her stride.

The UCT High School principal tells Drum that moving from eGcuwa in the Eastern Cape to Paarl in the Western Cape ignited a certain fire in her.

“It inspired me to look out for better. I had the opportunity to transition from a very rural community. Paarl is such a significantly different space to Butterworth. That intersection is what created in me a desire to aspire to better and to be more. Because I was then exposed to how much more is actually out there.

“So I couldn’t quite understand how I would relegate my life to anything below what I know is possible. That transition still continues to inspire me because I think my story around education is underpinned by that experience, where you see that the education standards from your home town are so significantly different from the education standards of Paarl Girls’ High.

“That in itself is problematic because if you think of the vicious cycle of poverty and how people get trapped in it – because they don’t have opportunities through education to advance their lives – I realised that I am pretty much who I am because of that.”

She still gets emotional when remembering this experience. But she’s adamant, as an educator and activist, that more children in SA should experience better when it comes to education. Good schools shouldn’t just be those that teach in English, and being born poor shouldn’t mean you automatically get a sub-standard quality of education.

Yandiswa is pioneering something new in the education sector as the first principal of UCT High School.

And, she admits, it’s not anything like she’d imagined when she was interviewed for the job after being head-hunted for the role in 2021.

“We are very nervous about our first matric class,” she says when Drum asks her how it feels preparing the first matriculants of the online school that was launched at the beginning of 2022.

First of all, with an online school this big, she says, it’s essentially like being principal of 10 high schools. That’s how vast the responsibility is for the former Head of School at Arrow Academy, where she was also the Centurion-based school’s founding head.

“Naturally, having been a school principal before,” Yandiswa tells Drum of her new role, “your thinking must shift because you are not in a bricks-and-mortar school. You are in an online environment. And it’s largely self-learning.

“So kids are logging on at a certain time, they’re going through their learning and it’s a different ball game all together.

“So yes, not the same as I’d imagined.

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“There’s a lot of re-imaging that we have to do. Our brains are constantly challenged with one thing or another. So we are constantly having to re-orientate ourselves from, ‘You know my predominant thinking is this, and now I have to change that.’

“And it’s such an empowering space because it changes you as a person. It challenges what you thought is right, it challenges what you thought was conventional wisdom.

“You can’t use conventional wisdom in this space. An example that I like using is that our matric results are probably going to be appalling, right?”

“But conventional wisdom says that a school is judged by the number of distinctions they produced in Grade 12. Now in our case, when you look at the profile of our kids who come from many different communities, we did not accept kids based on whether they are doing well academically or not.

“We actually accepted any child who passed the previous grade, however that pass rate may have looked like. And what that means is that those kids are now in our system. We even accepted Grade 11s, who are going to Grade 12 next year, and between Grades 11 and 12 we might not have enough time to turn things around. 

“But that can’t be our measure, because there’s such a bad education problem in our country, there are such appalling standards in our country. We are fleshing those out, whereas most private schools actually select their kids based on academic performance, which is why they produce good results to begin with – it’s not that the school puts in any effort in producing those results; it’s because the kids came in smart already.

“We don’t select our kids in that way, so already that’s another big shift we had to make that we can’t measure ourselves the same way.

“So I really love the fact that we’re pioneering something new, we’re challenged every day to think differently. But, also, we are shaping policy around how must government regulate the online space. We are a very instrumental piece there, because we are doing it and we are doing it at scale.”

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She previously taught at Rosebank Primary School and was CEO of The Nal’ibali Trust. But this responsibility she has now hits different.

Besides running a school with 378 teachers, she has to think about re-imagining education and the concept of an online high school every day. With no bricks and mortar to worry about, she may not need to think about maintenance and the limits of physical expansion and capacity. 

But she does have to worry about kids having access to the IT infrastructure they need in order to learn; how to make sure the school is building a good culture where everyone feels included, seen and heard, even if they may never meet in person; how to instil discipline so that learners understand the consequences of bad behaviour; and what happens when pupils can’t learn because of loadshedding or load reduction?

The question she goes to bed asking herself and wakes up trying to resolve is: how do you bring quality education at scale? So she has no typical day.

“Typical?” she laughs.

“Maybe not!

“Each day is very different. It involves meeting with stakeholders – largely UCT, because we operate separately as a school to the university. But we have to report back regularly to the university.

“I sit and chair various committees where the vice-chancellor would sit with the registrar of the University of Cape Town, so a lot of work goes into presentations, preparation and understanding what’s going right, what’s going wrong, how are learners doing, and reporting on maths, science and English. 

“So there’s a lot of stakeholder engagement; government relations, there’s a lot of legislation reform that must take place and we need to comment on various papers and draft policies as they pertain to online schools, so there is a lot of that external relations work that we’re doing. 

“But, also, a lot of it is around gathering the right data. For example, right now we have Sanlam scholarship recipients – about 100 of them – and they are mostly in Grade 8.”

“They’ll be with us for a five-year period, so having to keep tabs on their performance and informing Sanlam how they’re doing. We’re also working with the Human Rights Commission, really as advocacy because we want to make this offering as accessible as possible to all children, not just those in cities but also those in rural areas too.”

A huge bulk of the job is understanding the landscape, says Yandiswa. “We’re trying to make sure that online learning lands externally and making sure that the public understands what’s happening.” This includes writing op-eds and doing media interviews. “So the job is not very operational in that sense. It’s very much external-focused.”

Asked the question that is asked by countless parents with kids they wish to have enrolled at UCT High School, hoping this will guarantee them a place at the top African university, Yandiswa explains why the idea of the high school being a feeder school to the higher education learning institute is simply not possible.

“It can never be a feeder school because UCT is a government entity and they have thresholds. Actually at first year at UCT, they can only take 4 000 students, and we have 5 000 learners already. And that 4 000 must be spread across rural areas and urban areas, including township kids. It must be spread across for representation so that UCT doesn’t become this elite institution that only has kids from very good schools.

“So we don’t get any preference. Kids would have to get into UCT by pure merit.”

Parents have their own concerns when it comes to online learning but teens’ issues remain much the same, Yandiswa shares.

And one of those, with the first cohort of Grade 12s about to matriculate next year, is: “Will there be a matric ball?”

With hundreds of pupils spread across the country, Yandiswa says, that will be another interesting creative problem to resolve.

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