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Children from different backgrounds make friends at the Royal Drakensberg Primary School

Winding along a narrow valley in the northern Drakensberg, we turned up a track to Sungubala Camp and heard the happy shouts of children playing.

Because It Works - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org]
Children from different backgrounds make friends at the Royal Drakensberg Primary School

Winding along a narrow valley in the northern Drakensberg, we turned up a track to Sungubala Camp and heard the happy shouts of children playing. A single newly-thatched stone building was signed ‘Royal Drakensberg Primary School’ and our girls’ eyes lit up at the sight of climbing frames and potential play-mates. We joined in for five days and I found an intriguing combination of qualities working together in a way that I had never previously experienced first-hand.

The establishment of a primary school was made possible by the effective working partnership that exists between Zulu-speaking pre-school teachers, many of whom are now fully qualified, and these mothers and teachers of English and Afrikaans heritage.

We were lovingly encompassed in a school that reflects the local demography (85% Zulu-speaking) and provides a holistic, high quality education. Several of the school’s first nine year-old ‘graduates’ have been granted scholarships by top boarding schools. A handful of mothers – all long-term residents of the valley and from relatively privileged backgrounds – instigated the school’s birth. They had been supporting pre-schools in poor neighbourhoods to improve facilities, and to better nourish, care for and educate very young children.

Because It Works - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - The Royal Drakensberg School - Great Guides

The reason I am writing about my experiences in this small school is because something clicked. It works for the teachers, pupils and their parents.

The question of why teased me. Some of the answer was immediately obvious: a well-resourced facility with a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:12, plus an assistant in each classroom. But there were other qualities that revealed themselves more slowly.Arriving at the school on our first morning we saw a huge pink and white iced cake being walked forward amongst a chorus of young voices.

One mother, hot and tired in her cycling gear, put her hand to her face in a mixture of delight and embarrassment. The teachers, half of them raised in local Zulu-speaking villages and the remainder first-language English or Afrikaans speakers, had conspired to bring Loretta – one of the founders – to the school on her birthday under the pretext of an ‘emergency meeting’. Once teachers Pretty and Melissa had set to distributing slices of cake to all and sundry, Rhianna, the school’s principal, spotted our new faces in the crowd and welcomed us warmly.

Bending down to include 6 year-old Sarita and her younger sister Lorien, she showed us round the former cow-barn, beautifully re-thatched, that now houses 38 pupils in three classrooms, a library and remedial tuition room. Two slices of cake later, our girls were invited to join the kindergarten class for the remainder of our stay. Eager to give our girls some social time with their peers – often a challenge for those of us ‘road-schooling’ – I readily accepted. With them, I listened to the class story and pedalled my legs in the air for the bicycle song.

Four days later we had learnt our colours, painted egg-boxes into caterpillars, sung gustily in Zulu and English, stretched out in ‘monkeynastics’ and had an introductory lesson in ‘audiblocks’, a tool developed for remedial teaching.

We soon discovered that the climbing frame was a good place to make friends: small girls and boys quizzed the three of us on where we’d come from, how long we might stay. Four six-year- old girls sought out our company at each break time I was intrigued and encouraged by the apparent ease with which friendships were bridging different language and cultural groups and, keen to hear from children themselves, I mooted the idea of us interviewing each other.

Because It Works - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - The Royal Drakensberg School - Great Guides
Teachers bring enthusiasm and dedication

Because It Works - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - The Royal Drakensberg School - Great Guides


The children enjoy being recorded for Great Guides

Cebile, Luyanda, Olivia and Olwethu joined Sarita, Lorien and I on the grass. From two very different social backgrounds and home-settings, there was no lack of confidence in the girls’ expression of what they enjoy doing at home and at school, and their hopes for the future. Questions and answers flew back and forth, earphones were stretched in two directions and they liked the idea of sharing their words with anyone interested in knowing more about children’s lives in the northern Drakensberg. As is evident in the clips of our lively conversation, these girls’ everyday worlds are increasingly connected in what they enjoy and aspire to, but there remain some key differences in experience within their home neighbourhoods and hence some of their fears.

The Royal Drakensberg Primary School is a place where relationships thrive, both between generations and between people of different cultural backgrounds and histories. Perhaps this quality has something to do with why this school is working in a way that many are not.

Schooling is a tricky business in post-apartheid South Africa: a grossly uneven distribution of resources left the majority of those now rearing children illiterate. School leadership, tuition and parental input are often compromised with the exception of small pockets of excellence: the previously ‘white only’ schools that are now colour blind but charge hefty fees.
Because It Works - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - The Royal Drakensberg School - Great Guides
This inclusive school is tri-lingual

The state education budget is now large and skewed to rectifying past discrimination, but a new vision and different spending do not quickly translate into quality and equality in the nation’s classrooms. Why then had something ‘clicked’ in this little school?

Important, it seems, is that all involved belong to a fairly small community sharing a history of belonging to this beautiful mountainous area. And there seems to be an inherent realisation of the intimate links between preserving the physical environment and strengthening the social fabric. Everyone I spoke to somehow expressed their belief that investment in early childhood development is key to a strong society. And as the stories came out, it became clear that no-one was afraid to give it a go, to offer what they could – whether holding a jumble sale, wiring the building, or juggling a hotel job with teacher training – in order to contribute to the establishment of a school with quality. Whether Zulu, Afrikaans or English-speaking, parents and teachers are equally on board and demonstrating personal commitment by investing time in their children’s nurture and education. One Zulu father sits with his 4-year-old for two hours each day, encouraging her in literacy and numeracy. And everyone rallies round when a pupil arrives stating that she has nowhere to sleep that night, her grandmother having suddenly died, her mother long-gone to Durban to seek work and her aunt being too sick to care for her.

What exists in the former cow-barn is a clear testimony to what can be achieved through local knowledge, collaboration and a willingness to invest effort – often unpaid. But is this model one that supports or undermines the state system? Parent-founders fundraise successfully from local privileged families and the steady flow of tourists. The cash goes in three directions; first to provide bursaries to children from poor families covering 80% of fees at this school, second to support local state schools: Through an arrangement with Waltons, a large stationary company, five thousand stationery packs were distributed last year to pupils in the surrounding villages. And a recent donation of 1500 pounds raised by an Irish school was channelled into a nearby high school that struggles to function with state resources. It paid their phone bill, enabled them to re-connect their electricity and bought a set of audio-visual resources for their library. Finally, it covers tuition fees and transport expenses to enable Zulu-speaking trainee teachers to obtain first a certificate in primary education and then a diploma. Currently learning and working at the Royal Drakensberg Primary School, these staff members are likely to resource the state system in future years.

If you would like to learn more about the Royal Drakensberg Primary School or make a donation, contact Dave and Daphne Thurlwell. Tel: (+27) 36 438 6270 or fill in the contact form below.

To read more about childhood and the challenges of schooling in South Africa, see my book ‘Growing Up in the New South Africa: Childhood and Adolescence in Post-apartheid Cape Town’ freely downloadable from the HSRC Press as from May 2010. www.hsrcpress.ac.za

Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 26 Mar 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: society | education