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A thriving diversity programme at new ISASA member, Royal Drakensberg Primary School

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments


A group of parents began Royal Drakensberg Primary School in 2007.

Our intention was to school our own children – selfish, perhaps, but that was where the requirement and need lay. It seemed an easy enough thing to do: find a building, gather some children and get a teacher. What is interesting is that we contacted ISASA and it warned us against it. Listening would certainly have been the easier option, but we have never been great listeners. We are doers, and travelling 50 km to the closest English school wasn’t an option for us. So, in 2007, with 14 children and two teachers, we opened our doors. We were fortunate that we had an old shed that had been restored, but didn’t have any real function, and this became the schoolhouse – Grade R and Grade 1 located upstairs, and our small preschool downstairs. Over the years, we added a classroom a year and built accommodation for our teachers as our school grew. The children came from the families in the valley and since there were only a few, we began a scholarship fund. Our business sponsored the first five Zulu children from Amazizi village, and our plan was to make everyone a rocket scientist. We’d feed the kids with knowledge and churn out great academics. In the early days, we were a bit naive and we had to learn a few hard lessons.

Digging deep

Essentially, the growth of our school mirrored the personal and professional growth of the founders, too. Quickly it was obvious that we weren’t everyone’s cup of tea and when families pulled out, we had to dig incredibly deep. Fortunately, we couldn’t throw in the towel. There were others, less fortunate, who had come to depend on us for their education, and so we had to commit to making it a success. And it is a good story. We have enrolled 80 children this year – 96% from our rural community and many receiving financial assistance. Our own children flourished at Royal Drakensberg. It was and still is a real melting pot; a mix of languages, backgrounds and abilities. Our children learnt about compassion and how much more difficult life can be when you have no running water, or parents who are away working, or no one to share a bedtime story with. It is so important, too, to think further when making comparisons – why is there sometimes litter in the community village? Does this community have access to any refuse disposal? Developing a deeper understanding and making fewer sweeping judgements is imperative in South Africa today. Playing team sport, having loads of friends from a similar background or having a speech therapist on hand might have benefited our children, but we have not really seen them deprived because of the absence of these things. Possibly, quite the contrary – they have flourished. Less pressure does mean happier children, and it was surprising for two founding parents to see their son as the opening batsman for his very first cricket match when he moved to boarding school. Scholarships  have also been awarded to children who have exceptional talent, and we are so proud of Samkelo Mdakane, who now attends the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School.1 Every Wednesday, the widely recognised choir school hosts an afternoon concert, and Mdakane has appeared as a soloist a few times. Recently he received an outstanding commendation for his performance.

Authentic, timeless values include diversity

The founders soon became quite aware that education doesn’t start at the age of six when you walk into your first classroom. Some of our little people from Amazizi village battled to learn. Formal reading and writing was an enormous challenge, but they all loved to come to school and it remains the most nurturing of environments. Education is more than numbers and words, and it happens when children are at ease and feel safe. Education is also about instilling and living out solid values. We focus on developing a good work ethic, being kind to our friends, respecting everyone in our community and doing everything with integrity. This requires coaching and encouraging and mentoring. We are fortunate to be in a mountain wilderness, surrounded by the great outdoors, and nature provides an amazing space for learning and adventure. It also has peace and quiet and beauty, which helps still an agitated spirit. The coaching and mentoring trickles down to the teachers, too. We are fortunate to have two teachers from our community. They both started as teaching assistants and following training, they now teach their own classes. Other teachers on our staff over the years have been young and inexperienced and they, too, have required a lot of guidance. Thankfully, the education community is largely very willing to share and help, and we have been so fortunate in growing our team with the help of others. Being open to learning is one of the greatest assets an individual can have. We do not know it all and this attitude encourages an open mind. We have also learnt a great lesson in the importance of being less judgemental: slow down, stop and spend time embracing other cultures. Our Zulu children must learn and embrace their home language and we have wonderful isiZulu library books that families can share together. The more proficient they are in their home language, the more readily they will learn another. Drakensberg is to help children to learn to read, so that they can read to learn. We feel that this is where we will have the greatest impact in our community. Children will then have the skills to move on to other schools and continue their education journey with confidence and ability.

Fund-raising fundamental 

In a small school of under 80 children, where many parents can’t afford fees, the existence of this essential space relies heavily on donors, and we have had to make a few tough decisions. Our low monthly fees of about R1 500 per child still often remains frustratingly out of reach for some parents, which means we fall short of our monthly expenses for our greatest resource, which is our teaching staff. An incredible amount of dedication and hard work is required to make ends meet, and Royal Drakensberg would not survive without the commitment of so many. Just getting children to school costs an enormous amount, as we hire five taxis daily! Each year, we hold fundraising events. Since we are situated in the great outdoors, we encourage people to ride or run or hike, and this certainly help us keep our school afloat. Our Royal Drak MTB & Trail Run5 takes place each autumn and helps bring in valuable funds to support our school. Cyclists and trail runners take to the hills for a brilliant day out in the Drakensberg, with a range of events that suits the whole family. We have also committed to 10 Big5Hikes for Education.6 This year, we will complete our fifth Big5Hike on 19 May with about 110 hikers. Our Big5Hike gets backing from individuals and corporates, and hikers summit the five peaks in our valley, each raising R6 500 for education. Corporates “purchase” the peaks and it is an awesome way for outsiders to get involved. People hike in the mountains, they raise funds for the children, and this doing and giving makes everyone feel a great sense of achievement – which ultimately means greater happiness and a real sense of hope for a brighter tomorrow. This event has been a wonderful success and has assisted in us setting up a savings fund, which we hope will help with the long-term sustainability of the school.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Education is a vast and complicated topic. There are many opinions and many methods of implementation, but in our journey we have tried to keep things simple. Love the child, guide the learning, keep it fun, don’t worry so much about content but rather the skills, and stick to your promises. We can definitely build a nation that will contribute to society and a growing economy through quality education.

Megan Bedingham is principal at Royal Drakensberg Primary School.

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Category: Winter 2018

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