If there is one word that has gone missing in the growing challenges facing the South African education system, it is the word excellence. Shifting the matric pass mark in some subjects to 30% and a staggering 13% of the entire South African Grade 9 cohort passing the Annual National Assessments in 2012 for Mathematics are but two higher profile examples in a sea of others. They all show an inevitable and dramatic loss of any possible claim to excellence in our country’s education.
And so in this depressing educational context it is encouraging to know that there are still initiatives that refuse to give up on the importance of educational excellence. One of these emerges from an unlikely place – Tsakane Township in the East Rand, Gauteng. It is in this township of over 100,000 people, in the middle of simple white prefabricated buildings that excellence is pursued fiercely and passionately and most importantly, successfully, at the African School for Excellence.
Tsakane African School for Excellence (“ASE”) is the first high school of many more planned in the future with a simple if not audacious mission – that their students will graduate “with the skills to succeed at the world’s best universities and with the character and leadership to transform their communities.” And if that was not already bold enough, all this will be achieved at a total cost per student of R7,000 per annum(of which parents will contribute only R200 per month.)
On arrival we are taken on our school tour not by the principal but by an engaging student, Ntokozo. She takes us through the various classrooms, pointing out that each is named after a different African country. Her passion and excitement for the school is infectious. I am slightly thrown by her first question – “How many books have you read in your life?” Not a question I have ever had to answer before (and still not sure that I know the answer), but it is indicative of the thirst for knowledge that pervades the school.
We then walk into a classroom and interrupt a lively modern interpretation of Macbeth, with the simple classroom transformed through their imagination to mediaeval England in a conveyor belt of battles and powerful speeches. In the next room the students are watching an old classic movie production of the same play on the classroom screen.
Slowly the picture of the school’s innovative “rotation” approach to education starts to take shape. Each subject is approached in a rotation consisting of three elements: Independent work, team work and instructional time. This approach is based on enquiry based learning, and harnesses the opportunity of technology, particularly in the independent work rotation, where free products such as Khan Academy can support learning. The genius of this approach is that for each cycle of three rotations a fully qualified teacher is only needed in the one rotation (instructional) while in the others academic advisors (trainee teachers) can manage the class room. This is one of the key mechanisms for achieving ASE’s low cost education. You can listen to co-founder Jay Kloppenberg discuss the ASE model here.
While all of this innovation is compelling, what has been the actual outcome? It is still too premature to make any conclusive assessment – the first class only finished grade 7 last year and are now in Grade 8. But initial reports of the progress in Grade 7 are very promising. By September 2013, only nine months after starting, 99% of the ASE scholars had achieved the standard required by British Education at the end of primary school. And this cohort of scholars were entirely drawn from Tsakane Township applications with the only bias in selection being towards teachability rather than outright performance. So within a space of nine months ASE transformed these township children into globally competitive learners. The immediate goal is that later this year students from ASE will be in the Top 1% of the Grade 9 Annual National Assessments (“ANA”) – while they are still in Grade 8!
Yet as impressive as one finds the model, my lasting impression was of the people involved. They are the real soul of this initiative:
Including our host Nonhlanhla Masina, the operations manager, a suitably broad description to cover her multitude of responsibilities. She is a graduate of Tsakane, walking eight kilometres every day to high school, and now having obtained an honours degree in biochemistry at Wits University, while at the same time spending any free minute growing the vision of ASE
Or the Head of School, Mampho Langa. She was previously the Head of Academics at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls but has given up the comfort of Henley on Klip for the dust of Tsakane to be part of this grand educational initiative. Their commitment to the vision and the genuine sacrifices they have already made to make it happen are inspiring.
My colleague and I left Tsakane with the words of ASE co-founder Jay Kloppenberg echoing in our heads: “One thing I am sure of: the problem is not the students. South Africa’s townships are filled with exceptionally bright, hard-working learners with enormous potential. The vast majority do not receive the quality of schooling they require to reach their ambitious goals”
ASE is one small example that excellence need not be lost in South African education. But if educational prospects can be turned around so powerfully with a little vision, clear focus and lots of hard work, at no additional cost, why are we all so accepting of mediocrity elsewhere? We let our children down if we do not expect more from all of those within the system from parents, guardians, teachers to government and learners. Ultimately expectations drive outcomes.
I, for one, will be waiting for this year’s ANA results with even more interest than usual to see whether a small group of learners from the East Rand can decisively demonstrate how excellence has indeed been recovered. Incidentally, talking about expecting more, did I mention that the required pass mark for learners at ASE is 80%?