A light in the darkness

A pioneering school ofers a new vision for South Africa’s failing education system

Driving through the great Karoo, the huge semi-desert in the centre of South Africa, reminds one of Buzz Aldrin’s famous description of the moon as a “magnificent desolation”. Only sheep-farming works here and sometimes that doesn’t work either. Yet it is wonderful, though very thinly populated — the people who live here, the descendants of the San and the Khoi, are the most deprived in South Africa; often illiterate, racked by alcoholism and domestic violence and without any hope of upward social mobility.

Yet this is the scene of one of the country’s most remarkable educational experiments. Thirty years ago the wives of three white farmers, Anja Pienaar, Clare Barnes-Webb and Lesley Osler, decided to set up a playgroup for farmworkers’ children. There was no politics to this. Lesley was a liberal but the other two were apolitical. It just seemed an obvious need.

They started by calling a meeting of workers on the surrounding 30 farms — something that had never happened before — and thereafter made sure to make this community the final word on everything. The playschool was set up in a disused farm building, with the furniture made out of waste materials to save money. This worked well, but after 18 months the community expressed unhappiness. The only schools the children could go on to weren’t any good. Couldn’t Anja, Clare and Lesley start a primary school? The three women gulped but set to work. They got the provincial department of education to pay for two teachers and Lesley, who had been a teacher before coming to the farm, became the third.

Whenever Osler was confronted by problems, she would plough through all the available educational research and keep trying remedies until one worked

They added a higher age grade every year until they filled the surrounding stables and garages and it became clear they must move to a proper campus. When the education department wouldn’t pay, the only way out was to raise funds privately. It meant a lot more work, but the three women — with the community solidly behind them — felt they had no option. “You’re bound to meet obstacles and you have go over, around or through them,” says Lesley Osler. “Sometimes a river runs through your path. You just have to cross the river.”

A big problem was the hostility of the surrounding farmers, who regarded the three women as dangerous do-gooders who would only encourage the farmworkers to become “uppity”. In any case, they thought, the children would vandalise the school and the founders would lose heart. They shunned the three women and made it clear they didn’t want them on their farms. Undeterred, the women set up the Hantam Community Education Trust (HCET), took over a disused rubbish dump on an 11-hectare plot donated by a sympathetic local farmer and began to build. Gradually it expanded, but there were major problems.

The calibre of many South African teachers is low and a school can only be as good as its teachers. So the Hantam Trust set about training its own staff by making heavy use of the services of educational NGOs.

They quickly realised that training teachers in large lecture halls — the usual way — didn’t work. There had to be lots of in-class monitoring and training. This was done so effectively that the Trust school now has much better teachers than other local schools. Whenever Osler was confronted by problems, she would plough through all the available educational research and keep trying remedies until she found one that worked.

The language of instruction is a knotty problem in South Africa, with its 11 official tongues. While English is increasingly popular, most African and Coloured children struggle to adjust to having all their lessons in a new language. Just as the new campus was starting, the Minister of Education decreed that the teaching language in any given school must be determined by the parents. So at the next community meeting — and these were now increasingly attended by the fathers as well as the mothers — the question was put. Overwhelmingly, the parents spoke Xhosa and Afrikaans, but they opted for English “because we have only ever heard Mandela speak English”. English is also, of course, the language of commerce.

The school duly introduced English for Grade One (seven- year-olds) but the children struggled and became demoralised. Introducing English for the pre-school six-year-olds did not work either. So the initiative was moved down to five-year-olds and this earlier start was decisive. Today the children learn in English as well as native English speakers do.

Another unavoidable problem was the school’s isolation. It was 40 kilometres on dirt roads to the nearest town, Colesberg, and the children from outlying areas came from very poor families for whom car ownership was out of the question. The same problem applied to the teachers too. This latter problem was solved by building teachers’ cottages on the campus, but the attempt to run a student hostel produced insoluble problems: it was impossible, for example, to provide round-the-clock monitoring to prevent boys getting into the girls’ dormitory at night. The only alternative was to raise more funds for a school bus.

The school had not been operating long when Lesley Osler realised some children had severe problems. Many arrived at school having had no breakfast and were too hungry to concentrate. More money was raised, a kitchen was installed and hot meals were served at midday. This improved things a lot. But there were still children who were way behind. The reason was FASD — Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder — irreversible brain damage which results from a mother drinking too much during pregnancy. Among the Coloured community, with its high rate of alcoholism, FASD is a major curse.

The trust’s constant refrain was, “If you don’t believe us, come and see.” When department officials did come, the trust won its battle

The trust realised there had to be several responses to the problem. First, FASD-damaged children had to be put in a special needs class where everything would be done to build their confidence. They would not study the normal curriculum but a combination of the basic three Rs and the sort of practical skills likely to get them a job. The special needs class was called the Musketeers, with special outings and activities including special “TLC camps”.

This created trouble with the education department which, in line with ANC thinking, emphasised a complete egalitarianism and was hostile to any sort of segregation. FASD children, it said, must be included in all the normal classes. This the trust refused to do, pointing out that it was very bad for the affected children. The trust’s constant refrain was, “If you don’t believe us, come and see.” When department officials did come, the evidence was overwhelming and the trust won its battle.

They also countered the FASD problem with an effective parenting programme. Working through the community meetings, mothers were gathered together for talks about FASD. Often illiterate and completely uneducated, the women were horrified when FASD was explained to them. The key was, of course, that no mother will voluntarily damage her child. It was emphasised not only that should the mother avoid drinking during pregnancy, but the fathers were pulled in and the issue was re-explained to them — with the key addition that it would be very difficult for the mother to resist joining in if the father kept drinking during his wife’s pregnancy.

Until then, few fathers had regarded their children as any of their business, but slowly there was a growth of personal responsibility among both parents. In addition, emphasis would be laid on parenting skills such as adult communication with their children alongside intensive explanation and counselling about HIV/Aids. This was followed up by sending out community workers to all the farms, women recruited from within the Hantam community itself who were not easy to fool.

The trademark flat-top hills of the Great Karoo

When the school began to accept three-year-olds, it became evident that children who had come from homes involved in the parenting programme adapted much more easily to school. Most important, the rate of FASD began to fall. Today there are still a few FASD children in the older classes, but there have been none in pre-school or the early classes for years now. It would appear that FASD has been wiped out in the entire surrounding community — a wonderful achievement. More funds were raised, a clinic was set up in an empty house near the school campus and once a week children who had often never seen a doctor could receive medical and dental attention.

As the school got better, the attitude of the local farmers changed. The whole community was now so obviously much improved that almost all became strong supporters, often offering help in person or in kind. Indeed, a number of farmers have sent their own children to the pre-school and for primary education. Every year the school holds a Family Day, to which all the children and their parents are invited. In 2018 more than 600 people attended the event, where donated goods of every kind are sold at bargain prices, raising a useful extra bit of money. The school is now so well regarded that many parents in Colesberg, 40 kilometr0es away, ask to send their children there. Once local children have been accommodated, Colesberg children are accepted on a first come, first served basis, with no means test or entrance exam.

A key theme of the school is to provide practical employment skills. Some students are given agricultural training and are eagerly snapped up by farmers. The trust also offers a youth development programme for teaching interns. But many pupils want to do other things, so the school teaches skills such as woodwork, welding, sewing, fabric painting and hospitality work in a restaurant the school has acquired in Colesberg. Some graduates are now chefs in five-star establishments, one was assisted in becoming a game ranger, while another became such a good welder that he competed at the World Skills Olympics in Helsinki.

Academically, the pupils have progressed so far that they have begun to win provincial essay competitions. Such children naturally want to go on to high school and even to university, which their parents can’t afford. So after yet more fund-raising, the trust now pays the fees of any pupil who enters secondary or tertiary education; it already has a number of university graduates among its alumni. But for the school, all would probably have been illiterate farmworkers.

Lesley Osler is quite frank about this: “The school exists on an implicit promise: if you take personal responsibility for yourself and work properly, we will try to make sure that you get a job and provide you with a path out of poverty. If you take us on trust, we will give you hope.”

The education department knows the school is the best of its kind but this poses questions about why other state schools have not done so well

Thus far, almost all the school’s former pupils have entered jobs, an extraordinary achievement in a country with 50 per cent youth unemployment. The school’s alumni are deeply conscious of what the school did for them and often return to the school, where they are seen by the children as role models.

Thirty years’ hard work at the school has uplifted the entire community. The school has taught parenting, tutored teachers and community workers, wiped out FASD and increased the income of many families. Before it existed, many wanted to move away from the area, but the school and the clinic are now such drawcards that people choose to stay. This is beneficial for everyone, including the farmers who now have a much more stable workforce.

However, the school’s relationship with the provincial education department has often been difficult. The department has given minimal help, refusing even to help in the building of classrooms. This has to be seen against the background of the educational disaster under the ANC government. Standards have fallen so badly that it is a commonplace among black commentators that black education was clearly better under apartheid.

South African standards of literacy, numeracy and maths/science skills come in the bottom ten per cent in the world, with many African countries that spend only a fraction of South Africa’s education budget doing markedly better. The reasons are various, incuding huge corruption and the nightmarish South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), which has successfully prevented any form of school inspection, testing of teachers’ ability or other monitoring.
As a result, most black schools have high rates of absenteeism among both teachers and pupils. There are endless stories of teachers molesting their pupils, but SADTU ensures the culprits are unsackable. With nearly 40 per cent unemployment, many teachers have entered the profession purely for the salary, without any sense of vocation.

SADTU has more than once been caught selling teaching jobs, and whistleblowers exposing such practices have sometimes been murdered. The ANC government is scared of SADTU, which has influence in the cabinet, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Communist Party. Many, perhaps most, of the officials running education at provincial and national level come from a SADTU background.

The provincial education department is conscious that the trust school is now the best of its kind in the province, but this is a double-edged sword for it poses questions about why other state schools have not done so well. The department’s unease is mirrored by some ANC notables who quietly accuse the three founders of white paternalism.

The trust’s trump card is the unrelenting support of the wider community, which wanted the school, has provided some of the teachers, approved of every new initiative and benefited so greatly. Nonetheless, even after the trust won the Presidential Award for Community Development from Mandela in 1998, the authorities still feel somewhat distrustful.

It is clear the three founders represent a secular affirmation of the missionary tradition. As I learned more about the school, I was reminded of the tireless dedication of Sir Garfield Todd, originally a missionary from New Zealand, who built, organised and taught at Dadaya school, which educated much of Zimbabwe’s black elite.

It would be nice to think that the Hantam Trust might be reproduced elsewhere, and, indeed, there are a scattering of similar initiatives on other South African farms. But if these acorns are to grow into a forest, the ANC’s attitude needs to change. In 1994, when majority rule arrived, many whites of goodwill offered their services free to the new administration. They were brushed aside and those in jobs were often forced to take early retirement. The new regime wanted its own supporters in place and had no patience with liberal whites, no matter their skills. The country has paid an enormous price for this. South Africa’s main advantage over other African countries, after all, was its large number of well-educated and skilled people among its minorities. Making use of them could not have endangered African political predominance, a fact of life once universal suffrage was introduced.

The trust’s founders will soon retire. They have elaborate succession plans in place and will continue as advisers. Their successors’ task will be to maintain what has been achieved, but other challenges are bound to arise and fundraising has to continue. There will always be another river to cross.

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