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One hundred of the best

Innovation and excellence alive and well in SA's education system. Reports by PHILIPPA GARSON British Council-Sanlam Education Journalist of the Year 1996

 
OUR Top 100 Schools survey shows that excellent schools exist in every corner of South Africa. After scrutinising the mountain of information provided by secondary school principals to the questions posed by our panel and journeying around the country to profile some of the most innovative of our top 100 schools, it became clear that excellence resides in many different forms. Be it a small rural school or an elite institution on the slopes of Table Mountain with fees upwards of R30 000 a pupil, learning and teaching are taking place with awesome energy and vision.

In a climate of societal transition and financial cutbacks, schools are valiantly adapting to the changing times, displaying astounding resilience in the face of many obstacles. As many principals put it, they are finding ways of doing more with less.

They are also gearing their pupils for the information age and the technological challenges of the next century. They are managing - despite cutbacks to their staff and a disintegrating culture of learning and teaching in many instances - to push their pupils to give of their best.

They are preparing children for a bright future, be it as top-class professionals or artisans, aware that equipping them for work today means giving them skills to get by on their own.

Most participating schools are consciously nurturing self-reliance, independent learning and an entrepreneurial spirit. In many cases, they already practise outcomes-based education. Beyond this, these schools are giving "value-added" education, allowing children to pursue their interests and sporting ambitions in a climate of strong moral and spiritual guidance.

While the top 100 schools have their own unique identities, they share many characteristics for which all parents should be on the lookout when choosing the best school for their child.

At every school we visited, except Rivubye Secondary School, near Pietersburg, which was closed because of a strike last month, learning and teaching were taking place at a calm, uninterrupted pace.

Without exception, the principals, teachers and pupils interviewed showed a zealous commitment to their roles and a focused sense of purpose. Principals differed vastly in their management styles, but they all showed vision, leadership and a willingness to explore new directions.

They were capable of enforcing strict discipline, and many pupils cited this as a reason for liking their school.

While some schools said they were battling to find alternative methods to corporal punishment (now banned), most said they had cast out the cane long ago, having found more constructive ways of bringing children to order, such as making them study longer hours or perform a community service.

Teachers were all committed and united as a body, often working beyond the call of duty, staying late to give extra tuition or running extramural activities.

"Our teachers care about us," was a phrase many pupils used. In trying to define why her school was an oasis of learning in the midst of a down-trodden community, one teacher put it down to the dedication of the teachers. "Pupils are all the same. It is the teachers who are different," she said.

A strong spiritual or moral ethos was evident at most of the schools, where most of the children belong to Christian and other religious societies.

Recognition must be given to the Catholic schools, many of which feature in our top 100 list. They are shining examples of what can be achieved, often with limited resources, in a learning environment enriched by the co-existence of discipline and spirituality.

Recognition must also be given to the many excellent public schools offering value-added education, despite difficult financial circumstances. Many provide as good an education as some of the most costly private schools, at a tenth of the cost.

Our investigations showed that the "white flight" of children from public to private schools is unwarranted and short-sighted.

The school that achieved the most distinctions in our list, Westville Girls' High in Durban, is a public school. Other public schools are at the cutting edge with regard to computer-based learning. They provide wide subject choices, refusing to abandon "luxury" subjects like art and music, despite subsidy cuts. However, the devastating effects that teacher cutbacks have had on schools was clear.

Many schools have lost their most experienced, qualified teachers; others are battling to keep up the spirits of teachers who stand to lose their jobs.

Schools are tackling the challenges of larger class sizes admirably: some practise "large-group" teaching, where teachers divide the syllabus among themselves and lecture to big groups, followed by smaller tutorials.

Schools are making brave attempts to branch out to the surrounding communities, to share their resources with poorer schools and turn their schools into "education centres" used by the whole community.

Some could do more in this arena, though - several started out with grand plans, but outreach initiatives appeared to lose momentum and fizzle out.

Many schools that participated in the survey are tackling the challenges of racial mixing in the classrooms with courage. Some have introduced special bridging or "enrichment" classes for black pupils struggling to adjust to learning in English or, in some cases, Afrikaans. But clearly, more must be done by way of multi-cultural or anti-racist teaching to make all pupils feel they belong and have a stake in their schools.