- Thirteen years ago a secondary school in Soweto, South Africa's most populous black urban residential area, was little different from the majority of the country's schools: dilapidated, under staffed and crime ridden, with the vast majority of its students struggling to pass their exams. Now, things are changing.
In the last decade the Bhukulani Secondary School has undergone a metamorphosis, with its matriculation pass rate surging from 21.5 percent to nearly 98 percent last year, no mean feat for a school still trying to shake off the legacy of apartheid's unequal education system.
During the apartheid years, the race base segregated school system ensured that schools for white children were provided with top-flight facilities, while schools for black students were pitifully under-funded. After 13 years of democracy and huge spending by government - education received 5.4 percent of the annual budget last year - the immense challenge of reversing the debilitating legacy of "Bantu education" as it was known, remains a lofty ideal.
Late last year the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) published a report: Schools, Skills and Citizenship, which said about nearly 80 percent of schools were "essentially dysfunctional," and provided an education "of such poor quality that they constitute a very significant obstacle to social and economic development."
Within this environment and against all the odds the secondary school in Soweto's Zondi suburb, has blossomed, not through the injection of huge amounts of money - the annual government budget for its 1,320 students is about rand 300,000 (US$ 41,000) - but through the sheer bloody mindedness of its principal and staff.
It was not by chance that Bhukulani's renaissance coincided with the appointment of Mduduzi Maphindikazi Mathe as principal. Formerly a maths teacher at the school, Mr Mathe was well-aware of the challenges ahead and while many others would have baulked at the idea of taking over the reins of the impoverished school, where buildings were in disrepair, teachers were in short supply, and armed students conducted their turf wars on the school grounds, the Soweto-born educator embraced it.
"When I was appointed principal I decided I had to do something to turn the school around and I started by motivating the educators. I had been at the school as a teacher so they [the teaching staff] knew what type of person I was," Mr Mathe told the UN media 'IRIN'. "Admittedly I had to do a lot of spade work to do to try and win these people over, as many were lagging behind, but once they saw I was committed to this task they decided to support me."
Mr Mathe said his first course of action was to demonstrate his commitment to the job to both teachers and parents alike, so he moved into a house next to the school so he could keep a close eye on the premises and the neighbourhood. "I knew I needed everybody on board if I was going to change things, and that meant proving to everyone - teachers, students, parents and our governing body - that I was committed to the task.
"I used to deal with the troublemakers individually. I am a sports fanatic and I play a lot of soccer so I tried to get them into sports rather than drugs and gangs. But if that did not work I got rid of them from the school," he said.
While a variety of reasons, including HIV/AIDS, poverty, funding shortfalls and new curriculums are often cited as the cause for poor education results, education analysts cite the performance of teachers as the root cause for education's malaise.
According to Nick Taylor, the author of the IJR report on education, the lack of qualified and motivated teachers is the most urgent problem facing the education system, a situation not helped by the fact that up to 20,000 teachers leave the system each year, with only about 6,000 new teachers entering the profession.
"A large number of teaching days throughout the year and of teaching hours during most weeks are lost through absenteeism or lack of punctuality by principals, teachers and pupils. It is very common for little or no teaching to happen after mid-morning on a Friday, the day before a public holiday or during the last week of term," Mr Taylor said in the report.
Mr Mathe agreed with Mr Taylor's sentiments and recognised the major problems the schooling system faced was the shortage of teachers in the key subjects of maths and science and both the lack of discipline among students and teachers alike.
The school's success has solved the problem of the teacher shortage, as it acts as a magnet because "teachers want to come here. Even though we are not rich they are in an environment where they know they can teach," Mr Mathe said. "Discipline is the key with both teachers and students. To avoid absenteeism I am very strict about teachers filling out the necessary documentation. They must prove they are ill if they are to take a day off."
Low morale among students at many South African schools is almost a given, but Bhukulani Secondary School students appear to display both purpose and good humour. Final year student Nompumeleo Ketsekile, told IRIN, that while there was a lot of pressure on her to perform well in her end of year exams, she managed to also enjoy school. "I do feel a lot of pressure to achieve. But we have really good teachers who give us lots of help and encouragement. So I think it is something to be proud of to be here," the 17-year-old said during her lunch break.
From the very beginning the proactive approach taken by Mr Mathe and his staff began yielding good academic results. In 1998, 70 percent of students passed their matriculation exams; by 2000 this figure had jumped to 86 percent and last year the pass rate hit 97.7 percent with only five of the 131 students who sat the matriculation exam failing. A student must achieve passes in five of the six subjects taken to secure a pass grade.
The IJR report acknowledges that "a tiny band of schools" situated in some of the country's poorest communities provide some of the highest quality of education and it urged the government to harness the positive momentum they had achieved.
"They are performing heroic deeds under difficult conditions and serve as role models for the rest of the system. They should be prioritised for investment: unlike the situation in poorly functional schools where resources are not used anywhere near optimally, these school make the very best use of the limited resources at their disposal," the report concluded.
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