ISASA in Swaziland

Hlanganani Primary School

When you’re living in a country characterised by rugged rural beauty and significant distances separating small communities, the question takes on even more importance. It’s one several Swazilandbased parents located in Piggs Peak pondered in 1998 around a braai. Their initial options included Malelane Primary School in neighbouring South Africa – one hour away across a border post – Mbabane within the Swazi border but an equal distance away, or home schooling.

Starting from scratch

Their eventual decision seemed daunting, yet obvious to satisfy their desire for an English-medium institution – the only one in the vicinity. Says co-founder Kathy Gau, “We chose to open our own school. It’s how most independent schools are born.”

The group soon realised the scope of the mission. “The next question we asked ourselves was ‘do you know how to start a school?’ Of course none of us did!” remembers Gau. “We planned a series of steps, commencing with an investigation into how to get the process started, and regular meetings to discuss our findings. We were heartened when we held an open meeting in the area to gauge interest, and the response was positive.”

Like many who open independent schools, Gau and other founding parents found the process long and challenging. “It was only in December 1998 that we received the necessary permission from the Swaziland Ministry of Education. After that, things had to fall quickly into place. We had to rent a house, declare ourselves as a legal entity (Section 21, not-forprofit), interview potential teachers, and source desks and supplies without any start-up capital.”

The name ‘Hlanganani’ reflects the founding parents’ desire to unite the Piggs Peak community through the school. Gau clarifies: “‘Hlanganani’ means ‘let’s come together’. We wanted to keep our children in our community instead of sending them away to school in South Africa. We felt it was time to ‘come together’ as one community, through our children.”

Back to basics with an international flavour Once the name had been chosen, says Gau, Hlanganani Primary School’s (HPS) mission became clear. “We seek to provide each of our 123 pupils with the skills and attitudes to reach their unique potential.

“In order to achieve this, our 11 teachers and four support staff members concentrate on the basics, i.e. reading, writing and mathematics, thereafter expanding the use of technology in the classroom. We are also intent on exposing students to new and positive learning experiences, to be proactive and responsible, and to appreciate both group and individual successes. For example, our Grade 6 class runs our tuck shop, which gives them the chance to put a lot of skills to work.”

This kind of concentrated focus is possible at HPS because of the 15:1 pupil: teacher ratio, says Gau. “Our preferred methodology is important in this regard too; based as it is on a problem-solving approach that emphasises the use of applied knowledge and self-motivation over and above examination results.”

While Gau sees some advantages to living in this small community – “it’s pretty safe and characterised by solid cultural values” – there are drawbacks too. “We’re far from other private schools, which limits our interactions to sporting and other school events. It’s also a challenge to attract teachers to a village without amenities like movie theatres!”

This explains why HPS staff are in the main Swazi citizens – but, adds Gau, the addition of teachers from the UK, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the USA, and volunteers from Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, gives the school an exciting international flavour.

ISASA assists with strategic planning and support Reflecting on the school’s birth reminds Gau of the hard times. “Phase one was about survival in tough financial circumstances, about getting the basics in place, and establishing a name and reputation in the community.” Now, she says, management can afford to engage in strategic planning, which includes allowing the board to take a step back and leave the running of the school to the newly appointed school manager. “As this process unfolds, we’re mindful of the important contribution made by our former head Phindile Mthetwa, whose services were provided by government. She was instrumental in many areas, including establishing a familiar routine of lessons, play and extra curricular activities at our busy, happy little school.”

The ability to focus on strategic planning has in part been facilitated by ISASA, says Gau who, with some of her colleagues, looks forward to attending the association’s regular strategic workshops. “ISASA also supplies us with a network of schools and advisors on whom we can call for advice and mentoring when faced with challenges.”

Cultural shifts underway in Swaziland provide some of those challenges. According to Gau, changing social dynamics make it difficult for many people in parenting roles to meet the needs of children in their care. The interlinking challenges of HIV/Aids and poverty that permeate extended family networks affect every person in Swaziland. Concurrently, the country is working through a major point of transition. “We are moving from the ‘my way or the highway’ mode at family, community and national levels, to a mode of operation that embraces the diversity inherent in a human rights approach. As a result, the old ways of parenting are no longer acceptable, but many are resistant to change.”

Positive changes ahead Change is inevitable, however, and a positive force at HPS. The school is on the lookout for larger premises of its own with a sports field and better facilities. Having the former will enable it to become more involved in interschools sporting events. Permaculture, a recycling programme and a sustainable garden will also make it more eco-friendly.

“Another long-term goal is to offer training to parents on child development and personal financial management. We also want to provide development opportunities for international volunteers and Swazi student teachers.”

The positive feedback HPS receives from secondary schools that enrol its graduating students, like Waterford Kamhlaba (United World College), confirms for Gau that these plans are apposite. “Our students do very well at such colleges, telling us that they draw on the strong foundations acquired with us.”

One thing that is unlikely to change in the near future, says Gau, is the nature of the small Piggs Peak community. “It comprises about 2 000 people, servicing an area from the Komati River to the Matsamo border from where we draw our students. It is a low-income district driven by the timber and agricultural industries. Our fees are therefore correspondingly low, averaging R8 000 per year.”

School for the greater good Careful management and collaborative decision-making have helped the board and staff keep the school’s total cumulative debt at less than 1%. “The only way to achieve this was to institute a non-negotiable fee policy. Although school fees take a big chunk out of family budgets, we have seen a real commitment from our parents, so our ‘no fear or favour’ policy has paid off.”

In the end, says Gau, despite all the disheartening times, starting this small school has been a richly rewarding experience. “No community can develop its potential without being intrinsically involved in offering quality education. Our lifeline has been the commitment to manage the school for the greater good.”

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2012

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. welcome says:

    interesting article…

  2. shaun l says:

    Much has changed since the start up days in ’98, and the school has gone through a dynamic and yet challenging time. Well done to all…

    We passed through there in ~2008 (after a reunion at Bulembu) but unfortunately the school was on a holiday break.

    Maybe next time…..

  3. Marie Grobbelaar says:

    The Principal
    I am a teacher in the grade 2 class in the Western Cape, but my children and grandchild lives in Mpumalanga and won’t mind to move to Mpumalanga, but I currently have a permanent post in the WCED with pension and medical aid.
    I just want to ask what does the E stand for in connection with the remuneration and what is it in terms of the South-African Rand.
    When does the applications close? May God bless you in appointing the best person for the job!
    Marie Grobbelaar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *