By Penwell Dlamini, Sunday Times, 16 April 2023
Schools in the Free State, one of SA’s poorest provinces, have gone from near-bottom to the top of national education. Penwell Dlamini visited some schools to find out how this turnaround happened.
A pupil arrives at the gate at 10am and sneaks through, dashing to his classroom hoping nobody notices him. His anxious behaviour is an indicator of the new habits at Commtech Comprehensive School in Freedom Square in Bloemfontein.
Arriving late was the norm in the past, when the school a “mess”. Today there is an atmosphere of discipline.
Deputy principal Kula Nkaki, who joined the school in 2017, has watched Commtech rise from an “albatross” of the provincial education department to one of the best in its district.
“We were third from the bottom”, says Nkaki. “We were always called by the department for accountability sessions because of our performance.”
Principal Motsamai Mofokeng, who arrived in 2021, helped turn this around. By 2022, the previously underperforming school had a 98% matric pass rate.
Nkaki was tasked with ensuring that all staff and pupils arrive on time. School starts at 7.30am and late arrivals are now rare.
The happy buzz of children is a sound Nkaki cherishes when she thinks of the old days, when Commtech had serious gangsterism problems impeding teaching and learning.
“Leaders of the gangsters were here at the school,” says Nkaki. “Five learners had to relocate to another area because they were targeted by gangs. One learner came to school with a gun and it went off in his pocket, injuring his foot.”
Kamohelo Seekoei, 18, who was at Commtech from grade 8 to grade 12 and is now in her first year studying law at the University of Free State, remembers that environment. “We constantly lived in fear. I lived very far from school so on my walk home I always feared that something bad was going to happen to me. You never knew when they were going to attack.”
How did this change? Nkaki says: “Mr Mofokeng told us that we should focus on curriculum coverage and nothing else. He said all the other things that are happening at the school make us lose focus. He started focusing on grade 12, how they covered the curriculum. Heads of departments were tasked with monitoring how teachers covered the curriculum every week. We had to give him reports on how far we were with the syllabus and the impact that extra classes were having in improving curriculum coverage.” He also introduced a system to help pupils who were struggling, as well as a disciplinary committee. Hearings were conducted and sanctions imposed on pupils who did not follow the rules. Gradually the behaviour began to change.
The school also formed a special relationship with the local Kopanong police station which helped with immediate response in cases of extreme ill discipline.
Kagiso Shanduka Trust intervention
Seemahale Secondary School in Botshabelo faced similar challenges, until it was assisted by the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation and the Kagiso Trust. The two organisations formed Kagiso Shanduka Trust (KST) to transform the education sector in the Free State.
Sekoere Mokgele, principal at Seemahale, has watched his school transform from one of the most troubled to among the best performing — with a 93% pass rate — in his district.
To change the system you do not just work with the individual schools but also officials of the department
Mmabatho Maboya, CEO of the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation
The Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation intervened in 2013, when almost everything was going wrong. Mokgele says the school’s main problem was gangsterism.
“Learners used to fight inside the school. When they fought inside the school they did not take weapons. It was a fist-fight. They would fight during breaks and when they do, everything stops,” he said.
KST introduced a youth activist, Tshepo Thulo, who came to the school to address gangsterism.
“He visited homes of the learners that were part of the gangs and discovered that some of them came from child-headed households. Some only had one meal a day, which was the one they got here at school. He then brought in social workers to help the learners,” Mokgele said.
Seemahale is a no-fee school with 1,829 pupils.
It was also discovered during the KST intervention that some of the pupils were involved in substance abuse. They were given help.
Thulo revived sports, including chess, netball, softball and soccer.
“This worked wonders in diverting the attention of the learners as those who were troublesome got a chance to compete in sport,” Mokgere said.
Pulane Mathobisa, chair of the SGB at Seemahale Secondary School in Botshabelo, remembers the gangsterism she experienced at school. Image: Thapelo Morebudi
Seemahale established a “sheep league” for classes to compete in. At the end of the season the winners received a sheep to slaughter.
It took two years for the school to get rid of gangsterism on its premises.
To ensure the school was safe, Mokgele introduced access control with security guards manning the gate.
KST then began training teachers in classroom management and the importance of fulfilling their duties to the children and their futures.
This revived passion among staff and today Mokgele never has to police them. “I know they are in class; it happens automatically. Teachers are also hardly absent because they are motivated to do their work.”
KST built a media centre with computers and a library in 2015.
The Free State department of education donated a hall, which is used to raise funds by hosting events.
Seemahale is now efficiently using the South African School Administration and Management System , which captures everything happening in the school. It also enables the district, province and national department to see what occurs at the school on any given day.
This includes attendance, late arrivals and curriculum coverage.
Mokgele said to get maximum results in matric, management starts closely monitoring performance from grade 10.
“From the results of the first quarter of grade 12, we are able to identify the learners who are struggling and immediately provide the required support,” he said.
There is also a programme run by the University of the Free State in which professors teach some matric subjects. Those sessions are recorded and played at the school to help pupils improve their marks.
The provincial government plays an important role, Mokgele said.
“The people at the province and district level are so serious about their work. They only celebrate the results on the night of the release. Beyond that, they are focused on the next grade 12 learners immediately.”
One of the people celebrating the turnaround of the school is Pulane Mathobisa, chair of the student governing body.
She was a pupil at the school from 1997 to 2000 and now has a child in grade 11 there.
“I am ecstatic at the way the school is at the moment. I remember the times when there was gangsterism. Community members were worried about the direction that the school was headed. Everyone hoped that something would happen to change its fortunes. Fortunately for us, things turned for the better,” Mathobisa said.
Kopano Jonas, 17, joined the school in 2018. He remembers the time when gangs called the BTKs and the 28s terrorised the facility, but things began changing in 2019 when he was in grade 9.
“We started being focused on our studies. Sport taught people that they have potential and did not have to focus on gangsterism. It was really effective. As a school we realised that we had great talent among us,” Jonas said.
He is studying mechanical engineering at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein.
NEW BROOM SWEEPS CLEAN
Reamohetse Articon was the worst performing school in Botshabelo. In 2020 it achieved a 52% matric pass. In 2022 it was 100%.
In 2021, Khauhelo Kanapi was brought in as the new principal. When Kanapi arrived, the school struggled with poor attendance and ill-discipline. Pupils arrived late and did not wear proper uniforms. They also did not respect teachers and hardly ever did their homework.
The environment was so toxic that teachers would also not pitch up.
“One of the first things I did was to ask the department of education to come to the school and motivate the teachers because their morale was very low.
“My second priority was to ensure that there is proper curriculum coverage. I told teachers that I would also go to class to serve as an example. I taught business studies. Educators started seeing me going to class and they also went to class to teach,” Kanapi said.
He then reviewed the code of conduct of the school to improve discipline.
“We informed learners that late-coming was no longer accepted in our school. We told them dodging classes was now a thing of the past. Failing to do schoolwork was no longer acceptable. Steadily, learners started to comply and wore their uniform. Disrespect of teachers declined drastically,” Kanapi said.
It is vital for teachers to become part of the changes at any school. “Whenever I come with a programme, I make sure that the teachers buy into the idea first and make sure that I get their inputs,” Kanapi said.
He encourages his teachers to “teach and assess” — identify pupils who are struggling and give them the required attention.
Reamohetse now specialises in the arts, with classes in dance, visual arts, music and drama. There is absolute quiet during classes.
Nomsa Khumalo, treasurer of the SGB, said Kanapi’s arrival at the school turned it into something they never believed it could be.
“Every month we have a parents’ meeting where teachers discuss learner performance. We know as the SGB that there is a system in place used to monitor curriculum coverage by teachers at the school. We wish that other struggling schools could get a principal like him,” Khumalo said.
WHOLE SCHOOL DEVELOPMENT
Mmabatho Maboya, CEO of the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation, has been watching the Kagiso Shanduka Trust partnership with Free State education yield results since it began in 2013 with the District Whole School Development Programme.
The focus was to transform teachers, school management and the district to create a system that produces results.
The model begins with a needs analysis in which the performance of the school is studied thoroughly. An empowerment workshop is then conducted to draw up a strategic plan for the leadership of the school. The same is done for the district officials.
“Our model does not only work with school. It is more of a systemic change model. To change the system you do not just work with the individual schools but also officials of the department,” Maboya said.
The programme includes teacher development, curriculum support, youth development, infrastructure development and social welfare projects.
In primary schools the social welfare projects mainly focus on eyesight testing and the provision of spectacles to the children.
Initially the project was set to last from 2013 to 2018 but it was extended for three years.
Last year was the first in which KST did not intervene in the Free State but the province still had a 88.5% pass rate, the highest in the country.
“The results you are seeing show the sustainability of the intervention. We finished implementing the pilot and we were just completing a few infrastructure projects,” said Maboya.
She said KST had an agreement with the department to focus on quintiles one to three — schools from poor communities in Fezile Dabi district and two circuits in Motheo district.
Once KST has a clear understanding of the needs of each individual school, a plan is drawn up “that says if we are here for five years. For these groups of schools, this is the best way to start the intervention.”