Great things happen when learners are taken seriously

South Africa’s greatest education challenge lies in improving the situation in schools serving communities where poverty is the norm, many adults are unemployed and crime is rife.

In 2012, I became interested in a school that was increasingly successful despite operating in a badly disadvantaged community. It is a high school in a poor, peri-urban community that serves black learners. It borders the rural community of Klapmuts and the urbanised area of Kraaifontein, which is about 40km away from Cape Town’s central business district.

The area was an informal settlement until 1998 when the government started building houses as part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The school’s results have consistently improved since 2010. A school that serves the same community and is less than a kilometre away is not achieving the same success.

I wanted to know how, against the backdrop of a public education system that is fraught with problems, the school – which I will not name to protect learners’ privacy – has improved its results so much.

Opportunities and support

The question at the heart of this study was whether getting learners more involved helps to boost school performance. The voices of learners and alumni are often marginalised in studies that explore school success. This study used qualitative research to acquire rich, deep data from these groups – who are, after all, fundamental to any school’s success.

Opportunities and support emerged as two important factors. Learners who said they had been supported by their parents felt this had bolstered their autonomy, their discipline and their chance to succeed at school. One learner said:

[My parents] supported me physically, financially and emotionally … [they] motivated me by telling me how they were living in the past and they only wanted the best for me to achieve success.

Teachers were supportive, too. Learners said they were able to talk to their teachers about problems at school or at home. For instance, learners told their teachers that they were struggling to study in their homes. Many lived in homes with only a single room and shared the tiny space with their entire family.

The school responded by keeping classrooms open until 9pm. On most days, teachers stayed late to help learners with their work. When teachers weren’t available, prefects were given the responsibility for locking up. They were held accountable for the condition of the classrooms the next day.

Learners and alumni said the school had organised events that exposed them to life beyond their own impoverished community. They went to the theatre and attended extra classes at universities. Learners said opportunities like these had motivated them to succeed and given them the belief that they could climb out of poverty.

The principal was singled out for praise, as he organised many of the theatre trips and extra classes himself. He was approachable and perceived as listening to learners’ concerns. This boosted learners’ self-confidence. One alumnus told me:

The principal was always there for us making sure that we pass and that we all get good results. I remember a term when I failed; he called me in his office and told me it is not over until it is over. It was the June exams that I had failed [and there were still final exams in November to lift the results].

Communication also played a crucial role in the school’s success. Learners were informed about issues at the school. The principal and teachers were open with them about changes and developments. The learners weren’t necessarily involved in making decisions but they were allowed to openly discuss their concerns and felt they had a real influence. This contributed to learners feeling like they were part of the school community and had an important role to play.

Learners also communicated with each other in a supportive way – they motivated their peers and engaged in healthy competition to succeed academically.

Lots more to learn

The school I studied did not have access to state-of-the-art technology. It used what was available to encourage learners and to provide them with opportunities for personal and academic growth. It’s clear that these measures can be applied in all schools, even those that lack basic resources and infrastructure.

This study shows that learners have a great deal to contribute to the discussion about education in South Africa and that their voices should be taken seriously.

By Conrad Potberg, a Teaching Practice Coordinator in the Faculty of Education

First published in the Conversation Africa at


CPUT is the best choice

CPUT is the first choice for training of staff employed at Technical and Vocational Education and Training Colleges in the Western Cape.

The Department of Further Education and Training (FET) at CPUT has been training college lecturers since 2003 in line with an agreement signed by the university and local colleges.

“In order to teach at colleges lecturers should have at least a three-year FET qualification, but most of them don’t have it as they come straight from industry and go to teach at colleges,” says Andre van der Bijl, the project’s manager.

But thanks to the agreement,  more than 200 college lecturers have graduated from CPUT.

Between October and November of each year Van Der Bijl meets with Human Resource Department officials of the affected colleges who identify lecturers who are eligible for up skilling.

Participating institutions include False Bay, College of Cape Town, Northlink, Boland and West Coast College.

Van Der Bijl says the success of this long-term relationship with colleges can be attributed to his department’s collegial approach to the colleges as well as its willingness to represent them in the university’s administrative processes.

“Colleges in the region prefer us to supply the service and this positions CPUT’s name nationally as one of the main producers of college lecturers.”

Unite through stories

The Faculty of Education’s Prof Janet Condy says Digital Storytelling is more than just an ice-breaker, instead it can make a real impact in breaking racial barriers. As transformation in the Higher Education sphere continues to dominate headlines she says students should be encouraged to unite through common stories and not race.

The current focus on the statue of Cecil Rhodes at UCT is emblematic of much bigger questions – questions about race and social transformation. These are questions that are central to the work we do in the Faculty of Education at CPUT.

This was underlined last year when a past student from our faculty shared an experience. Committed to giving back to community – he had chosen a school in a poor area as his first teaching post. There was even a rubbish dump next door, and through his classroom window he could see people scratching through the rubbish. He told me how surprised he was when one of his students, a little girl said “Sir you see that lady digging in the rubbish dump – she’s my mother!”

He understood immediately how important it was to listen to what this little girl had to say, that while her story of growing up in poverty might not be particularly unusual in terms of the bigger picture, it was at the same time utterly unique to her, and it mattered. His response mattered just as much.

We all have stories, stories of hope and joy as well as stories of pain and despair. These stories speak to ways in which our common humanity is divided by race and class, as well as by gender and other forms of social inequality. I believe that if we can find ways to share our stories perhaps we can find ways to rediscover ourselves and others as ‘being human’.

For the past five years, students in the Faculty of Education have shared their stories. The storytelling began when I noticed how seldom students mixed across race groups. Two decades after apartheid, born frees seemed to be perpetuating the very racial divisions the anti apartheid struggle had fought against.

I wondered if we could find ways of connecting across these divisions, and so Daniela Gachago (from the Fundani Unit) and I developed the Digital Storytelling project. Students are provided with skills and expertise to make a digital story about a social issue close to their hearts. This year 76 stories were made by 4th year Faculty of Education students. They were divided into small groups, each with a peer facilitator – students from their own class who had undergone additional training at the beginning of this year. We used participatory learning activities to help develop the trust needed to share the stories close to their hearts and employed a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ to challenge students to tell the stories that really mattered to them.

Once made, stories were shared with other students, and often with family and friends as well. Some students have even given us permission to put their stories onto YouTube. Less than 500 words long the stories are very powerful, and this is amplified by the way they are crafted with visuals and audio.

We hope that by sharing their stories, our students – the teachers of tomorrow – will be better able to help their own students connect across racial divides and be more human.

By Prof Janet Condy