By Thierry Delvigne-Jean
LIMPOPO PROVINCE, South Africa, 3 June 2011 – The school stands in the middle of dry grass at the end of a dirt road. Its classrooms are neatly aligned around an open courtyard where hundreds of children play noisily in their brightly-coloured uniforms.
At first glance, nothing distinguishes Makgofe high school in Limpopo province from most other schools in the country. But behind the bricks and mortar, the school has seen an impressive transformation. For the past couple of years, it has outperformed most other schools in the province.
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The trophies neatly aligned on the windowsill in the principal’s office show the school’s progress. In just a few years the school has gone from being ‘critical’ – a category reserved for schools suffering from extreme levels of poverty, high dropout rates and low pass rates – to one of the best. This is no small achievement in this poor, rural community, where children face many odds.
The school is part of the child-friendly school initiative – known in South Africa as the ‘Safe and Caring Child-Friendly School’ programme – that is being implemented by the Department of Education, with support from UNICEF and non-governmental organisations such as Link Community Development.
Child-friendly schools aim to increase access, retention, completion and learning achievement for the most vulnerable children by promoting life skills, community participation, and health and safety.
|© UNICEF South Africa/2011/Delvigne-Jean|
|At Magofe high school in Limpopo province, Kgothatso (left) is the president of the GEM/BEM club. His classmate, Masai, is president of the Representative Council of Learners.|
It’s also about equipping and empowering boys and girls with the knowledge and confidence they need to make their way through the daily perils of growing up – such as teenage pregnancy and alcohol abuse.
Abigail Setati, a soft-spoken and determined woman, has been the school’s principal since 2008. “We see ourselves as one family, with a common goal,” she says. With more than 1000 students and 33 teachers, she runs a tight ship.
She is well aware that getting children to school and keeping them there is only half the challenge. Creating favourable conditions for children to learn and thrive has proven to be much more challenging.
In rural communities like Makgofe village, children from disadvantaged backgrounds have to work harder to achieve their dreams due to poverty, long walks to school and a lack of educational materials.
‘Like a family’
Masai, 17, is president of the Representative Council of Learners at Makgofe high school, the student body that oversees student affairs. He arrived at the school a couple of years ago.
“From the first day I arrived here, I knew this was a different school,” he says. “This school is like a family for us. Teachers are like our parents, we regard them as our parents.”
Sitting next to him is Kgothatso, 16, who is president of a Girls and Boys Education Movement (GEM/BEM) school club and the top performer in 11th grade. The GEM/BEM clubs are a key element of the child-friendly school programme. They help learners to recognise and make the most of their potential.
“The club has helped me to be positive about myself,” says Kgothatso. “We look at issues in the schools and we come up with ways to address these issues.” Using drama, poetry and other activities, the members of the school clubs – ‘gembemmers’ as they are known – show initiative and entrepreneurship in the face of adversity.
“Some children tell me ‘how am I going to go to school today if I have nothing in my stomach?’” says Kgothatso. “So we started a garden behind the school to help feed those who don’t have enough to eat at home.”
|© UNICEF South Africa/2011/Delvigne-Jean|
|Bridget speaks to her classmates about the GEM/BEM club at Mathomomayo high school. She is very active in making sure students have a voice in school affairs.|
Child-friendly, holistic approach
Ms. Setati says that this holistic approach to education has made the difference. “Our school goes beyond the curriculum,” she explains. “We teach them things that are not in the formal curriculum but that are important – social skills, for example, like how to greet and support each other.”
For Ms. Setati, the success of the programme is in its rights-based approach. “We involve learners – through the learners’ council – in every decision we make, so learners are part of the process,” she says, adding that every decision the school makes is designed to be child-friendly.
Another strength of the initiative, according to Guy Bostock, the Link Community Development coordinator who oversees the implementation of the programme in Limpopo, is that the child-friendly school programme can be adapted to each individual school’s needs.
“Different schools pick up on different things, depending on the specific issues they face,” he explains. “The approach has six main principles, but the schools identify their own priorities for improvement.” Since the child-friendly school programme began in 2004, over 800 schools have joined nation-wide.
And size does not matter. The same sense of accomplishment is visible at Mathomomayo high school – with its 350 learners and 11 teachers – near Limpopo’s provincial capital of Polokwane. Bridget, 18, is the president of the Mathomomayo high school’s GEM/BEM club. She exudes determination and confidence.
Inspiring their peers
Soon after arriving at the school, she gathered a group of students to set up the club, with support from the school management. “At first, some students made fun of me, but I didn’t care,” she recalls, ‘I told them it was their way of expressing their weakness… and now we are very active in school activities.”
Empowering and giving a voice to learners like Masai and Bridget is at the core of the child-friendly school approach because when children are involved in the way their school is managed, they become agents of change themselves.