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How South Africa is educating their children? – HTT asks Tarina Swanepoel, a local educator

Sandra Užule - Fons

A lousy school system wastes the potential of South Africa’s younger generation. Education both reflects and entrenches the inequalities in South Africa society. Apartheid still casts a shadow over education. More than 180 of the top 200 schools took only white pupils under apartheid. Today non-whites make up 60% of the pupils across all fee-charging schools, but they are overwhelmingly from the country’s elites. Since 1994 there has been some progress. Today we are talking to educator Tarina Swanepoel, a teacher in Hoogenhout School in Bethal in South Africa.

What is your experience in education? What is your role as an educator?

Not only to teach, but also psychiatrist,mother, mediator. We also encourage learners so that the process could be interactive. My aim is to get learners to become well-balanced individuals who can think for themselves.

How is the education system organised in South Africa? At what age do children start school? How long does compulsory school education last?

It involves a huge amount of paperwork that can be frustrating. Parents are represented by the Governing Body, who plays a supportive role. The school management team consisting of the principal and heads of departments, takes the lead, but all teachers play an important role to ensure success. 

It differs though from school to school depending on the support of the community. The Department of Education doesn’t contribute sufficiently within regard to finances so schools are mostly reliant on school fees (a lot of parents are unable to pay) and fundraisers.

Children start school at age 6 in grade 1 (primary school) that ends at grade 7 at the age of 13. From there they go to high school (Hoogenhout) from grade 8 age 14 to grade 12 age 18. After highschool they can start to work or go for tertiary education in their chosen career path.

Have there been any changes in the education system in your country in recent years?

Teachers have more admin (paperwork) than previous years that they are expected to do by the Department of Education. The system changed in 2011 when Outcomes based education was replaced by CAPS.

As about your school – What kind of school is it? How is it different from other schools in South Africa?

Our school is in the countryside. (about 700 learners – this is a medium size school)  All learners are known personally to the teachers as well as each other. They are involved in sports activities and cultural activities. Values and traditions are very important to us.

Your school has its own old traditions. It has been functioning for more than hundred years (since 1918). What kind of traditional elements have you decided to retain till now?

The new grade 8 learners (from primary school) are known as Rofies and they follow an initiation period of about two weeks to help them bond (they come from different schools) and to become used to the high school system. In this period they have group athletics, a team building day away from the school, they have to carry a pet such as an egg that they have to decorate with a face and a name. They have dress up days according to themes and may not wear the school blazer for the first two weeks. That also helps that all other learners and teachers know that they are in grade 8 and help them with directions, where to go and what to do. After the two weeks we have a very formal Blazer ceremony where only grade 8’s and their parents are allowed.  During the ceremony the principal dresses them in their blazer and they write their name in the school book. The next morning the rest of the school learners and teachers welcome them with a small gift as they march through the rest of the learners.

During sporting events we have a special creed that we shout called the Bulala (there are posts of it on our fb page) a boy is chosen to lead the school in the creed and it is a very big honour. 

We also have an assembly each morning. Monday to Thursday we gather in the quad and Friday’s we gather in the hall and this is a more formal event. We underscribe a Christian ethos, we sing the school anthem on Fridays and the code of honour is read by the Headgirl. The prefects wear their formal school attire and the staff wear their formal wear. (Men – Staff school blazer, shirt and tie, woman – we have dresses that we wear made from specially printed fabric with some key features of the school)

All sport and cultural events – if the learners reach a certain level they may wear a white blazer to school on Fridays. Our normal blazers are navy.

We also have spirit week once a year that includes night school, theme days and a dress up day. 

These are just some of our traditions.

If I understand correctly, your school teaches the same curriculum in two languages simultaneously – for English learners and Afrikaans learners. Why did you choose such a model?

Yes, we chose this model so that we could accommodate all learners. We have 11 official languages in our country and they differ quite a bit. Learners can choose to be educated between English or Afrikaans (Dutch) By choosing this model we can accommodate all learners in our community.

I went through your curriculum. You teach a lot of interesting subjects. One of them caught my attention: Life orientation. It’s a compulsory subject. What is it about?

Life Orientation is taught from grade 1 but is known as life skills in primary school. During this time learners are taught about hygiene, road safety, diseases such as HIV and TB and general life skills. In High school we start to prepare them to choose careers by guiding them to know and understand themselves as well as the world of work. We also teach them the value of democracy, being a responsible citizen of the community and country and how to cope with aspects such as stress, life changing events, how to set goals and achieve it. etc.

In your curriculum among optional subjects you have quite practical subjects, such as Agriculture Science or Business studies. Could you tell us a little more about these subjects? Why are they included in the curriculum?

South Africa has a very big agricultural influence and Agriculture as a subject teaches children the basics about animal husbandry, soil development and how to protect nature from an agricultural view. Business studies give the learners that choose to take it a broad view of the business world and how it operates for example the micro, meso and macro environment, entrepreneurship, business needs versus customer needs etc.

From grade 1 to 9 learners must follow compulsory subjects. From grade 10 they have English, Afrikaans (Dutch), Math or Math Literacy and Life Orientation as compulsory subjects and then they must choose three more subjects that fit with the type of career they would like to pursue after school. Agriculture, Business studies, Tourism, Computer Science, Geography, Hospitality and Accounting etc. are some of the subjects they can choose from.

How does the involvement of students in the teaching process look like? Is there a place for cooperation with them?

Yes, in class as well as during extramural activities. As said before, we want them to think independantly.

What role do you think schools should fulfill above the others?

Schools are one of the pillars of society, an essential part of your being. We work in close cooperation with the parents. (loco parentis)

Schools are not only about knowledge, but life skills, values, a tool kit to survive in the adult world.

What do you remember most about your own schooldays?

That was a long time ago when schools looked and functioned a lot different than today. But I have fun memories of teachers, classes, friends and events during that time.

What does school mean for you? What do schools exist for?

School gives us the opportunity to not only teach children knowledge but to equip them and guide them to become the best person of themselves so that they can become the best parents, citizens, teachers, doctors and workers one day that can again teach and guide the next generation.

What do you think schools should teach?

The ideal school I think would be a bit of a mix and match of what we have today and some other aspects of schools around the world. I think a more diverse curriculum with the ability to help the learners that can not afford to have tertiary education or who lack the skills to become A level students. If they can be equipped to become electricians, plumbers, seamstresses etc. so that they can make a living for themselves and their families even if they are unable to educate themselves further.

What would an ideal school be like for you?

Maybe something between a traditional school and a Montesorri school in an ideal world. A school where children can learn through play, adventure and be stimulated more than just sitting in a class and soaking up knowledge. 

What are so me of the challenges that you think schools face today?

Inequalities in communities. Lack of infrastructure in certain areas. Lack of basic necessities , like books in certain rural areas. Parents who don’t have jobs, as a result children are sent to school hungry and sometimes don’t come at all.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

About the author
Sandra Užule - Fons
Holds Ph.D. in history, journalist, documentary filmmaker. Researcher and author of scientific and other publications about the Baltic States and media. Her professional career started in Warsaw in Polish Public Radio working for more than 10 years as an editor in Polish Radio External Service. She cooperates with media outlets in the implementation of media projects in Central Europe and Post-soviet countries. Currently, she is working on an alternative school project.
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