British teachers building a future for African children

Getting an education is a battle in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa's poorest province. But a group of visiting British teachers have vowed to help. Richard Garner reports
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The Independent Online

The motto "ever to aspire" can mean different things in different schools. In an English grammar school in a leafy suburb, it would mean all pupils getting five top grade A* to C grade passes at GCSE - and going on to university.

At Entwine Primary School in the rural heartland of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, it has a more modest meaning. The school's 20-year development plan talks of ensuring that the school has water, electricity and telephones - and of action to reduce classes that can have as many as 65 children in them.

The plan also aims to create recreational avenues to keep young people busy, thus protecting them from drug abuse, HIV/Aids, and, yes, gangsters. In one Kwa-Zulu Natal primary school, the headmaster estimated that 18 to 25 per cent of his pupils were HIV-positive or had the Aids virus.

Violence is a common problem affecting the school community. At one secondary school in Durban recently the technology teacher was taken hostage by an armed gang and murdered when no one could pay the ransom fee.

At the primary stage truancy is not a problem, despite the fact that youngsters face a walk of up to two hours to get to school. At Entwine, some of the pupils trek 10km to get to their classrooms that are perched at the top of a hill. The only time attendance suffers is when it rains - the river at the foot of the hill becomes impassable, thus preventing most of the children getting to school.

That is why another of the school's priorities is to make sure that a bridge is built across the river. "When it floods they can't come to school," says the headmaster, PR Jobe. "It's very, very frustrating."

The development plan could be "a far-fetched dream", he agrees. But at the same time he insists: "It is one that we aspire to."

Entwine is by no means unique in its lack of resources. Indeed, class sizes of up to 100 pupils can be the norm in some schools.

Others do not even have a classroom - lessons have to take place under a tree in parts of the bush. At rural secondary schools, exam papers often have to be delivered by helicopter during the rainy season.

This relentless battle against a lack of resources left a deep impression on the group of eight teachers I spent two weeks with on a study tour of South African schools. So much so that the eight, now back in their classrooms in the United Kingdom, are determined to raise money to build much-needed classrooms in the province.

The eight, all of whom were winners in the UK Teaching Awards last year and were given the trip as part of their prize, are planning to channel the money through the Teaching Awards Trust. It will be given to Project Build, a not-for-profit company based in Durban that has dedicated itself to raising funds to improve the school infrastructure in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the most needy province in South Africa with the highest adult/pupil ratio (36.7 to 1).

"The thing I'll take back with me is the deprivation in some of the schools - how little they've got," says Angela Rawlinson, head of St James Church of England Primary School in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, and winner of the primary head of the year award. "Yet in some schools they are very optimistic about moving forward."

The teachers are interested in working with Project Build rather than an individual school because it knows where the most need is. And they feel that - as the teaching award winners of 2005 - they can do something to help the development of education in South Africa.

"I was struck by the strength of human spirit displayed in some of the schools we visited," says Belinda William, joint head of Stoughton Infants School in Guildford, Surrey and winner of the healthy school award. "They are delivering in the face of enormous challenges."

All the teachers reckon that they would be less sympathetic to their colleagues' grievances about a lack of resources in the UK as a result of what they had seen in South Africa. All were also impressed by the strides made by the pupils against the odds. The children were fluent in two languages, Zulu and English, by the age of eight and had learnt a third, Afrikaans, by the time they left primary school. Things are improving, however, in South African schools despite the lack of resources. The story of Tembi Ndlovu, principal of Khanyanjala School, a township primary school with 1,189 pupils in Durban, is testament to this. The school is built on a hill with a playground at the bottom and classrooms built on banks all around it. "When I first came here in 2000, there was a muddy swamp with frogs in it," says Ndlovu. "You couldn't make it up to the classrooms. I said 'I'm not taking this on unless you do something about it'."

Her tough stance paid off and the swamp was cleared. Now she has just taken delivery of her first consignment of computers and will be introducing IT into the curriculum. However, Project Build estimates that there is still a need for 14,500 more classrooms in the province. There is a dearth of lavatories in the schools, according to Suzanne Edmunds, chief executive officer of Project Build. "The pupil teacher ratio can go up to 100 to 1 in some schools. I'm a bit of a Polyanna, though, and I believe things will improve."

All state schools in South Africa rely on fees to supplement their budget. The charge can be as little as 300 rand (£25) a year in the poorest townships to as much as 17,000 rand in the most sought-after city schools. The trouble is that those in the most need of extra funding have the most difficulty in getting parents to pay the fees.

Officially, according to the government, hard-up families are exempt from fees. But teachers point out that they do not get any extra funding to offset any shortfall in fees. It is not uncommon, in township and rural schools, for only about a third of parents to pay up.

The visiting teachers, felt that they learnt a good deal from South Africa's schools. They were impressed by the respect shown by pupils. Whenever we entered a classroom, all the pupils stood up and said "good morning, visitor".

In the corridors, pupils make way for adults instead of barging their way through to the next lesson. "That is something I'll take back to my school - the way they have trained their children to have good manners, and the respect they shown us," says Belinda William. "They acknowledge you in the corridor and they stand aside for you."

The abiding memory, though, is the struggle against the odds for the ANC government as it continues to battle against the legacy it inherited from apartheid - where an average of 4,604 rand was spent on the education of a white child and just 1,891 rand on the average black child.

That, and the enthusiasm for learning shown by pupils who see education as their only way out of the lifetime of unemployment endured by many of their parents. In the townships, unemployment can be as high as 80 per cent. As bleary-eyed British children struggle out of bed at 7.30am on a winter morning to prepare for school, it is worth remembering that Happiness, a 10-year-old girl at a church primary school in Durban, will already be there, having started her journey at 5am.

If you want to help a school in Kwa-Zulu Natal through Project Build, please contact the organisation at

Project Build: funding the future

Project Build, the not-for-profit company dedicated to improving education facilities in South Africa, says that there is a need for 14,500 new classrooms in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone. During its 28 years of existence, it has built 5,100. The cost of building two classrooms - necessary to establish a new rural school - is estimated at about £15,000.

"We won't work with a school that doesn't provide some kind of funding for itself," says chief executive officer Suzanne Edmunds. The necessary funding could be as little as 3,000 rand to ensure that the community is committed to the school.

In practice, though, in poorer communities, the contribution can be some kind of payment in kind. For instance, in one rural community without a school, the mothers of the potential pupils cleared the way for a road to be built to the school - eventually building it themselves. Project Build also runs an adopt-a-school programme under which corporate organisations and other donors can continue links with schools and provide funding for facilities. PricewaterhouseCoopers is one UK firm committed to the programme. RG