Education Perspectives: South African Stories of Schools that Work

March 13, 2014Molly Blank

The education system in South Africa is in crisis. But across the country, there are schools that are succeeding in spite of this and creating a better future for their students and the country.

In 2011, just before the beginning of grade 12 matric exams, South Africa’s education minister Angie Motshekga issued an open letter apologizing to students. She wrote, “I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I, Minister of Basic Education, have let you down. I apologize unreservedly for all you have been through as a learner.” This apology came in the context of a failure of hundreds of schools to receive textbooks on time.

There is clearly a crisis when the government has to apologize to students for failing them, for not giving them the education they deserve.

In the context of this crisis, I went in search of the bright spots; of schools where progress can be seen and where children get the quality education that the South African Bill of Rights affords them.

Over the past two years, I traveled around South Africa capturing the stories of these schools. I visited schools with 2,221 students and with 600 students. Whether urban or rural, big or small, the one thing that these schools have in common is that they serve disadvantaged communities and have achieved academic success. These schools are doing well despite hunger, crowded classrooms, lack of toilets and other resources, and sometimes, unresponsive provincial governments.

So why do some schools just work? It is something that people all over the world are trying to understand. “There is no recipe for success,” one principal in Soweto told me. It can be simple – good leaders who hold teachers accountable.

I saw a series of factors -- good teaching, extra classes, continuous assessment, and engaging parents. Check, check, check, check. 

But what is revolutionary is sometimes obvious. One principal told me that the main reason her school works is because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they are teaching. The question we should ask is - why is this not the norm?

On paper we have policies and we build education systems. Sometimes they work, often they don’t. We use statistics to assess schools, examine progress.

These schools shift the paradigm.

At these schools, determined and resilient young people arrive at school at 7:00 am for mandatory study.

Teachers implement concrete strategies and get students to perform calculus with the same energy and love as Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And committed principals lead with a philosophy and vision that is felt throughout the school. These men and women fight and sacrifice for their students because they know what’s at stake.

In schools that work, principals recognize the obstacles in front of them, but say they just work hard with what they have. Some do this by empowering teachers to be agents of change, others use a combination of love and discipline to make school feel like home, others regularly adapt strategies in order to help students achieve.

While the schools have high pass rates, the question remains, are the students getting good enough results to study further? These principals know that a basic pass won’t take their students very far. Especially when the bar is set so low. You only have to get 35% to pass the matric exams in South Africa. Most universities require an exemption pass -- at least 50-60%.

So all of these principals are aiming for the real prize -- 100% quality passes that ensure further education, better jobs and more hopeful futures for their students. Last year, at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo province, 325 students qualified for university.

These expectations flow down to students. They have been witness to the transformation in South Africa and 20 years after democracy, they are eager to contribute to it.

It is not just the leaders, principals or teachers; it is the investment and the strength of the students who push one another. Students want to go to university, they want to be doctors and engineers and lawyers and teachers, but almost everyone also wants to provide for their family and plow back into their community in attempts to change the circumstances.

Their teachers hope to get them there.

So two thoughts:

Just imagine what could happen if we could harness the energy of these schools and spread it across South Africa? How could we replicate the success of these schools to transform other schools in disadvantaged communities that also have limited resources, not only here but also elsewhere?

And perhaps a more exciting idea, given the current success of these schools that work with only a few resources, just imagine what they could do if they were given access to all the resources that are available. Imagine if every student at those schools had all doors open to them. What it would it look like to level the playing field?

I have seen diverse school communities, each with their own stories, but all moving towards the same goal; teachers who understand how to nurture student potential, and who extend themselves as counselors and parents, as well as educators; principals who work tirelessly to maintain effective institutions so that teaching and learning can run the way they are supposed to, all with a single focus that their students find a place in the outside world; and students with goals, who want to be active members of the new South Africa and transform their community and country.

They know what matters. But it is when we all decide that this should matter that the real change begins.

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker and journalist based in South Africa. Her new book is “How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools That Work” was just released. It includes 19 videos that tell the stories of these schools. Find out more about her work at

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