Outwit, outplay, outlast

| October 13, 2011 | 1 Comment

The story of Sisekelo

By Kathy Thompson

This is the story of how, within a short span of 24 years, one small school has journeyed from prosperity, through the tumult of abrupt outsourcing, then the slow, uphill climb to viability and the prospect of sustainability.

The inception of Sisekelo High School marked a halcyon period of exceptional sugar quotas on a vast sugar estate called Ubombo Ranches (in 1998 the estate was bought by Illovo and renamed Ubombo Sugar) and an idyllic life in rural Swaziland, on the banks of the great Usutfu River. The founding of the school arose from an attempt in the late 1980s to establish localised quality schooling for Swazi children and those whose expatriate parents were employed on the estate. The founders committed to aligning the new school with other non-elitist, nonracial schools whose mission was to ensure top-quality teaching and learning without the frills, to all children in the community.

Putting the basics in place

No expense was spared, however, in the recruitment of a reputable teaching staff with superb academic track records. In addition, the founders ensured that this teaching staff was representative of the demographics of the student enrolment. In the late 1980s, the nonracial environment was an exciting opportunity, particularly for teachers who had crossed the border from South Africa. In addition, they benefited from a remuneration budget that had the full financial backing of a corporate entity wholly committed to quality education.

The original sugar mill, built in 1956, was transformed into the Sisekelo High School Science laboratory and teaching venues. Two basic structures of four classrooms each were built, and adult education continued apace as well.

The curriculum was an enriched blend of Swazi and South African education principles, as the majority of the Matriculants intended studying further in South Africa (a few went to Europe and the USA on scholarship opportunities). Learners followed this innovative, truly African programme, which prepared them for the local Cambridge O-level examinations at the end of their fourth year and tertiary study at the University of Swaziland or the Swaziland College of Technical Training. Those who intended pursuing tertiary education in South Africa continued to Matric to write the Joint Matriculation Board examinations. Academic performance was of paramount importance, with an emphasis on small teaching groups and constant tutorial support. The vision was wholly endorsed by the Swazi Ministry of Education – to the extent that, to date, the Regional Education Officer serves as an ex-officio member of the Ubombo Schools Trust.

An educator’s dream By 1991, Sisekelo had affected education in greater Swaziland profoundly, and parents were demanding the establishment of a boarding facility. It was an exciting time, as more and more parents sought to keep their high school children in the Swazi kingdom. Sisekelo remained small – the first hostel was built for 25 girls and 25 boys.

All administrative functions were carried out by the sugar company, and its financial support took the form of contributions to social and corporate upliftment. Millions of Emalangeni (ZAR equivalent is 1:1) was spent on education throughout the estate; neighbouring state schools received regular donations for teaching materials, transport to and from school was free, a state-aided technical and vocational school was built to further their commitment to education, and a further three schools received a subvention towards salaries. The list was endless. It was an educator’s dream – quality education underwritten ethically by the corporate world!

Winds of change: 1999

But in the shadows loomed the spectre of economic challenge, leading to a period of transition that can only be described as disastrous. A change of ownership of the sugar company spilt over to education without any careful or conscious change management. The focus was to be core business. That meant grow more sugar cane and mill more sugar. All subsidiary activities were seemingly sidelined in what felt like one fell swoop. Conveniently for those concerned, along came an international British consultancy specialising in educational management. Among other things, it offered:

• “The promise of the establishment of schools and other institutions, as well as the education of poor and deprived children in developing countries.

• To develop these as self-sustaining and viable projects; and as centres of educational excellence with a view to developing local educational systems by provision of high standards, while respecting local cultural content and national outlook.

• Promotion of educational /scholastic links between the UK and other nations.”

For the greater rural community, this organisation brought the promise of another dream – education for the poor. However, it soon became abundantly clear that:

• Schools for the poor would be established with the financial excess generated by the two independent schools on the estate, one of them being Sisekelo!

• There would be a distinct move away from the South African system of education to the promotion of local education systems only – thereby limiting students’ options.

• Loan funding was provided for infrastructure development with the express purpose of increasing enrolment – without careful consideration of the current ethos. A new hostel was built with the intention of cramming in as many bodies as possible.

• A Director of Education was appointed. His move away from the more marketable Matric qualification to a more localised qualification created an uproar.

• He then appointed a new Head of Sisekelo. Within a few months, a case of fraudulent documentation was uncovered, and within six months the Director had fled to India and the Head just managed to escape the Royal Swazi Police.

Upholding the ethos at all costs

On the ground there was much confusion; no change management and financial instability began to threaten what Sisekelo had come to mean. Teachers were informed that they would have to reapply for their positions, as contracts were ending and that remuneration would be aligned with a new financial dispensation.

By 2002, only three of the original teachers remained. What began as a slow trickling departure of students culminated in a mass exodus of expatriate children moving to other ISASA schools across the South African border. The consultancy employed teachers with no Independent Examinations Board or Matric experience, but who were nevertheless deemed appropriately qualified to teach. The impression was created that Sisekelo had become a ‘school for the disadvantaged’. Financial support, in the amount of eight million Emalangeni for education on the estate in 1998, dwindled to just over two million by 2002.

This was our ‘defining moment’. All we had worked for could have crumbled away, leaving only a bitter legacy of yet another failed African education enterprise. Astonishingly though, a miracle occurred.

Numbers began to climb and so new appointments were made. Indeed, the school was undergoing a profound demographic change: while the expatriate community seemed to have lost faith in its future, the southern and east African community became keenly interested in its founding ethos, which the community of Sisekelo was determined to preserve.

The thrill of professionalism

In many independent schools in the southern African region, there was some reluctance among the old guard of educators to adapt to Outcomes Based Education (OBE). At Sisekelo, however, teachers rose to yet another academic challenge, seizing every opportunity to forge connections with those in South Africa willing to share their expertise.

Increased teacher confidence showed in pleasing results. Now all students were writing the South African Senior Certificate final examination. Significantly, the degree pass rate increased beyond the 50% established during the O-level days. Allan Grey Fellowship Awards and government scholarships became available.

From viability to sustainability By 2006, viability had been established. The inevitable move towards independence was slow and fraught with the financial dilemmas that face all low-fee paying schools. Infrastructure development was needed, but income had to be devoted to operational expenditure. Advice on development came from The Independant Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) and, in the corporate world, from groups like Advtech and Tshikululu Social Investments.

As we were able to say that we were waving, not drowning, seed funding was being repaid to the London-based organisation, with no sign of reciprocal support for our urgent building needs. The relationship deteriorated further as information reached Sisekelo that the original Director (now resident in India) was implicated in cases of child abuse. The founding Trustees moved quickly to separate the schools from any association with this organisation, as the erstwhile Director was sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment in the United Kingdom.

Eleven years on, we move towards sustainability. We are now only dependent on our ‘sugar’ for housing, water and medical costs. As long as Sisekelo maintains its reputation for academic excellence, remains economically accessible to the greater community and stands by the Statement of Principles that embodies the Christian values system of our founders, we say – tentatively – all is well!

Kathy Thompson is Head of Sisekelo High School.

Independent Education extends its condolences to the Sisekelo community; the school suffered the trauma of a recent fire that claimed the life of a teacher.

Category: Spring 2011

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  1. Jonetta says:

    It’s great to read something that’s both enjoyable and provides pragmtiadsc solutions.

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