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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.