Why we chose ISASA

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

Bedford Country School

By Rene Park and Staff

It was established in the mid 1800s when Sir Andries Stockenstroom, a pioneer and politician, sold portions of his farm Maastroom and named the town that developed after his close friend, the Duke of Bedford. Bedford is located on the southern edge of the Winterberg mountain range, one of the best cattle, goat and sheep farming areas in the country. While the town experienced a major decline in fortunes towards the end of the 20th century, it is regarded today as an ideal place to retire and an artist’s haven for some. For many others, the high unemployment rate and concomitant poverty are exacerbated by widespread HIV/Aids.

How we came to be

Bedford Bears Pre-Primary School had been in existence for 25 years. Parents could send graduating ‘Bears’ on to either the local state schools where – despite the best efforts of educators – the classes are overcrowded and under-resourced, or to boarding schools far from home at the tender age of six.

It therefore became apparent that there was an immediate need for an expanded Foundation Phase school up to Grade 3. We had to identify and obtain bigger premises and become a private independent school.

It so happened at the time that The Manse, a private bed and breakfast establishment built in 1900 to serve as the first school in Bedford, was on the market. When two successful businessmen, Piet du Toit and Richard Aucamp (both previously educators) heard our plans, their passion for education and eye for historical architecture motivated them to buy the beautiful building for us. The grateful pre-primary school parents immediately became involved in restoring, refurbishing and returning the building to its original use and, in January 2009, Bedford Country School (BCS) officially opened its doors to 32 eager young children, ranging from age three to Grade 3. The grand old building was once again filled with the sound of children’s laughter and learning!

BCS now has 45 children in attendance with three fully qualified educators – all local farmers’ wives – and an assistant, Phindi Patosi. Although a fee-paying private school, we educate a diversity of pupils across the socio-economic spectrum, including a number of underprivileged children whose fees are sponsored by generous local and international benefactors. The school draws on children from the surrounding small towns and some farmers’ children travel in excess of 100 km per day to get to our school.

Sourcing the best education we can find

A school out in the country can easily become isolated, so it is imperative that we put in place the best possible education on offer. The Grade Rs benefit from a wonderful, South African programme called ‘Music for our Little Ones’. Knowledge Network is a fun, non-threatening, progressive computer programme. The Eco-schools Programme forms an important part of the school curriculum because Bedford is an area rich in wildlife, bird life, fauna and flora.

The school has a sound and transparent working relationship with the local state schools and another private school – and we find it advantageous to have the local Education Department on our side. Despite this alliance, since inception BCS has chosen to remain independent of any form of state subsidies, as monies allocated often don’t materialise. Instead, we rely solely on school fees, donations and fundraising efforts to stay afloat. And, as an independent school, we retain the freedom to make decisions about which curriculum to follow, which extramural and cultural programmes to choose and who appoint to our teaching staff.

Regional Director an excellent advisor

While we treasure our independence, it is very easy for a private country school to fall behind in understanding the ever-changing policies and acts that regulate schooling in South Africa. To sustain our development, our governing body and staff felt it essential to become part of an association. Looking around at our independent school neighbours in the immediate vicinity and in the education-rich city of Grahamstown, we realised they all belonged to the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA). Eager to learn more, we were introduced to Jan Immelman, the ISASA Regional Director for the Eastern Cape, who quickly became our port of calm in a storm, our advisor and, most importantly, our friend.

Immelman understood immediately how tricky it is to start a new school. He put us in touch with other independent ISASA schools that could advise us according to their experience, and visited us whenever he was in the vicinity, bolstering us with his inimitable good humour.

As an ISASA provincial representative, Immelman also made it clear to us exactly what the association requires from prospective member schools. Once we had completed the steps that go with formally registering a new school with the Department of Education, and fulfilling all the other necessary requirements such as rezoning – all in all an arduous task – he assisted us with the ISASA application process. We were impressed that ISASA obliged us to provide details of every significant document, such as the BCS’s Governance Structure and Board Constitution, our mission statement and vision, our five-year forecast, our audited financial statements, teacher contracts and other policies and structures. We were also required to sign the ISASA Code of Ethical Practice and to apply to become a member of Umalusi.1

Where we had omitted to address some or other issue, Immelman was there to explain its relevance and importance, and to assist us with compliance. Such detail confirmed for us that we had properly constituted BCS as a legal entity, and that ISASA was a professional organisation that took us and our plans to create a thriving education centre seriously.

Once all the paperwork was in place, Immelman motivated our ISASA membership at a regional meeting attended by Heads of other ISASA schools in the district. Within a surprisingly short space of time, our membership was approved by the ISASA Council.

A warm welcome

We felt warmly welcomed, receiving a letter confirming our status as ‘active member’, and inviting us to join the South African Bursars of Independent Schools Association (SABISA) and South African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA). At our first regional meeting as a member, we had the chance to share ideas and concerns with other ISASA Heads. We were also invited to write a short paragraph on BCS, to be placed with pictures on the ISASA website, as well as being invited to feature in this magazine. And we believe that for our membership fee, we receive an abundance of services from ISASA. The weekly bulletin sent to us via e-mail keeps us abreast of trends and meetings, and ISASA’s Policy Division vigilantly scans and interprets the plethora of legislation impacting on schools on our behalf.

Up-to-date contract templates and useful conferences

ISASA also makes readily available to us many documents drawn up by its expert legal advisors, such as the Employee Relations Manual, which has helped us to draw up fair teachers’ contracts. Without a doubt, the most significant document provided to us by the association thus far is the template for Parent Contracts, which protects us – and the parents – in virtually every possible legal situation that one could think of. We were fascinated to learn, for example, that should a parent bring the good name of the school into disrepute, we could ask them to remove their child. While we do not conceive that this would ever happen in our close-knit community, our parents have told us that signing this contract has made them appreciate their rights and obligations in this important partnership.

The BCS staff look forward to the conferences and workshops ISASA offers each year – such as the Governance Workshop, to be attended by our school governing body Chairperson and Principal. The School Sustainability Workshop will be most useful for a small school like us, where funds are limited and planning strategically and innovatively is imperative. Our subscription fee also includes public liability insurance, which covers the school against a host of potential dangers at a fraction of the cost offered in the open market. In due course, our governing body will also be looking at the ISASA Pension and Provident Fund for the staff, and in these stressful financial times, our Bursar will be attending the local SABISA meetings, where he will get very useful advice to ensure that our limited funds available are spent wisely.

Personal touch still the most important

Most important to us, however, is the fact that Immelman still remains our trusted counsel, and we are delighted to see him on his regular visits for a cup of tea and a chat. All in all, ISASA has offered BCS the chance to move from a small, isolated school to one that is informed, empowered and can stand tall among the other private schools in the country.

Reference:
1. Umalusi is the quality assurer in the general and further
education and training bands of the national qualifications
framework (NQF) in South Africa. The Council ensures that
the providers of education and training have the capacity to
deliver and assess qualifications and learning programmes, and
are doing so to expected standards of quality. (Source:
www.umalusi.org.za)

Category: Autumn 2012

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