“A township school can be a success if a concerned community makes the road accessible”

It was my first day at work — I had an early morning meeting with the South African project leaders of the TIMSS study, an international study of trends in maths and science. In the meeting, I was invited to participate in an on-going quality assurance exercise. This was good news as I enjoyed fieldwork. Some notes were handed to me as background information, and I felt ready to explore.

The drive to the school was quick, about 43 kilometres from Pretoria, using the N14, a left turn into the R511; and a couple of kilometres down the R511, there was the Diepsloot township, situated north of Johannesburg. The pattern of settlement in the township was of a low cost housing settlement mainly covered with shacks and a few closed shops. As I drove off the R511, into a small township street, it was clear to me that the township was densely populated. I keenly observed the people sitting along the small streets, and noted that many of them were idle men and young boys. And, although my agenda was to monitor proper implementation of the TIMSS assessment, I also had questions at the back of my mind i.e., “what is the education like in this community?” An answer could not be easily assumed. I tried to get a quick sense of what exactly the community engaged in, but not much activity was noticeable. The community appeared to be of a low income, with few or no services.

A few metres into the township was the school where the assessment was to take place. In some of its classrooms, furniture was piled in the dusty windows; the school was surrounded by a broken fence and learners appeared to be crowded on the school premises. Some of the learners glanced at us through the windows of their dome shaped classrooms. They were wide eyed, enthralled and excited to see new faces on their school premises. All learners at the school were informed of the upcoming assessment in maths and science for Grade 9. A Grade 7 learner ran out of his classroom and asked “Do you know maths and science?” “No, I don’t know maths or science,” I admitted, “but the other people here, I think they do.”

The assessment went on smoothly, but the questions remained. I wanted to understand this community, to understand what education in such a community was like. I wanted to understand the particulars and complexities that this school shared with its community. I would soon notice that some individuals had no respect for educational spheres in this community. Idleness from men in their most active years, listening to very loud music next to the school, seemed to suggest a lack of awareness for what learners were gaining from the school. The school environment also surprised me. I expected a better learning environment, regardless of how the community supported them. Issues that struck me the most were overcrowding in classrooms, coupled with learners not having the basics such as lunch boxes, which would lead to a low motivation for attending school. A broken school fence which provides no security to learners, broken toilets and a lack of clean drinking water were immediately noticeable. The lack of these basic amenities seemed to add an additional challenge to the learning process. The dignity of learners is an important part of education. As I tried to understand the complexities of the school, more questions followed: how do these learners overcome such challenges? Shouldn’t these learners just leave the school to fend for themselves? But then, I thought, the cycle of limited skills in the community would be perpetuated.

The school and its surroundings, have equally not contributed to advancing their community’s education system. Educational research shows that a good partnership between the school and the community is essential for excellent education. This school may be having a complicated and less meaningful relationship with its community, but it is a good example of the difficulties faced by township schools throughout the country, where learners are grappling to find a good education with insufficient support from their communities. Statistics from the South African Department of Basic Education indicate that there were more than 25,000 public schools (including community schools) in 2013. Public schools make up 95% of South Africa’s schools. These schools educate about 11 million learners each year, and try to prepare learners for work and ready them for a civic life. They are relied upon to shape and structure the communities; their economies, their politics, and their social interactions.

In 2013, the Minister for Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, echoed strong sentiments that townships schools were the future for the country. This is commendable; however, the quality of township schools and the quality of the relationship between the schools and their communities matters the most, both to learners and the local residents, and needs to be strongly upheld. Even with all their challenges, township schools are often forgotten, and with today’s one size–fits–all educational reforms, they remain underserved. The education system in these communities needs another arm— community support.

In closing my fieldwork reflections, yes—I believe township schools can be a success IF government can partner with these schools to improve not only their learning environment, but also to encourage a supporting role from their communities.

* Catherine Namome is a PhD Intern in the Education and Skills Development Research Programme of the HSRC.