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A unique learning way – LEAP’s holistic education approach

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Sabrina Lee

LEAP Science and Maths School is a leading learning organisation operating six high schools for young people from disadvantaged communities across South Africa.

The school was initiated by Cape Town, Western Cape educator, John Gilmour, in 2004, to address the shortage of science and maths graduates emerging from Cape Town’s marginalised communities. In 2003, around 650 learners in Langa (a township on the outskirts of Cape Town) sat the national matriculation examinations; only 350 of the learners passed. Further, only six students achieved a university exemption, and none did so with science and maths. Gilmour, who was the principal of Abbots College, a private education institution in Cape Town, as well as a volunteer sports coach and youth counsellor, decided to start a new type of community school to address the inequality of access to high-quality science and maths education for young people.

Leaping ahead

The first LEAP Science and Maths School began in 2004 with 72 students from Langa, giving rise to the original name: the Langa Education Assistance Programme (LEAP). The organisation has since grown to a network of schools operating in six different communities across South Africa, including Cape Town and Johannesburg, with the most recent schools being established in 2012 in Ga-Rankuwa (north of Pretoria) and Jane Furse (Limpopo).

LEAP’s student body comprises 97% black South African students from impoverished areas in the country. The remaining 3% is made up of students who are asylum-seekers or refugees from other African countries. Some 65% of LEAP students are girls.

In total, LEAP has educated more than 1 360 learners who needed access to quality schooling. At present, we provide student-centred maths and science-focused education to 960 such vulnerable young people, none of whom have had the opportunity to study outside of the township system. LEAP is not an academy model1 and does not select its students on academic performance alone, but also recruits young people who show aptitude and potential, and a willingness to work hard.

Key focuses

Our key focuses are enabling the self-awareness necessary for each student’s growth to healthy adulthood, and ensuring optimal academic results that will allow for choices for lifelong learning and a fulfilling future.

LEAP is equally concerned with the emotional and personal development of young people. Our code of conduct, to which all students and staff commit, is the most fundamental expression of our beliefs and values. Students are constantly encouraged to understand the code and its implications in every context. All classes, the life orientation (LO) class in particular, provide safe spaces within which they can begin to challenge and internalise the values.

LEAP uses the national curriculum2 as a guide to our subject content. However, all participants of a LEAP LO class, including the teacher, meet in a circle of safety. This enhances feelings of security and equality and allows for all present to engage with one another without hiding behind desks and books. Emphasis is laid on the development of the sense of self, as we believe that adolescence is when identity formation takes place. Values such as openness, honesty, respect and nonjudgement are used as the foundation on which all relationships are built and all choices based. Throughout the process of internalising these values, issues such as substance abuse, violence and teenage pregnancy are addressed. LEAP’s LO department is staffed by health and social professionals who work through their own and their students’ real-life experiences to build trusting relationships and promote insight into self and others.

In addition, a core component of LEAP’s intervention is its social and community work. Each student volunteers in a social development project in their own community to develop citizenship and leadership skills and develop as agents of change, role models and young leaders in their families and communities. LEAP itself gives back by sharing resources at its disposal to the communities. Moreover, LEAP provides organisations with strategic development assistance, including planning, budgeting, accounting advice and fundraising support.

Solid results and partnerships

This combination of high academic expectations with personal development and a commitment to social upliftment and engagement has led to good results, both academically and socially. From 2005 to 2013, LEAP had an average 93% Grade 12 pass rate (all students sat for maths and science examinations), with more than 70% of graduates pursuing tertiary studies. Thus far, 600 LEAP students have passed their National Senior Certificate Grade 12 examinations and more than 50 young LEAP alumni have graduated from tertiary institutions. The tenacity and work ethic espoused at LEAP schools has helped its students to make it through their tertiary studies in a context where only one in a hundred students graduate.3

From its inception, LEAP has built relationships with a range of education partners, both nationally and internationally. These partnerships assist LEAP to facilitate peer learning among students and teachers, support dissemination of good practice in teaching and learning, and influence policy and decisionmakers in education. Nationally, each LEAP school is linked to a well-resourced private partner school for the purpose of promoting integration across cultures and society; sharing science, sports and career facilities; participating in joint social development work in our communities; and sharing teaching and learning practices. LEAP has also partnered with nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) that promote quality and equal education by recruiting and training university graduates to teach in South Africa’s most disadvantaged schools. Furthermore, LEAP was instrumental in the establishment of Bridge, an organisation dedicated to dialogue and communities of practice in education,4 and the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC),5 which brings together high-performing public and independent schools to share good practice.

Training teachers

In 2007, the LEAP Future Leaders Programme was introduced in response to a severe lack of adequately trained teachers in South Africa.6 The aim is to enrol 10% of` students from each graduating matric class at LEAP to study education at a tertiary level. Future Leaders are supported to enable their teaching studies at South African tertiary institutions. There are currently 30 young people in the programme. In 2012, two of the first to qualify as teachers were placed in new LEAP schools in Ga- Rankuwa, a township located about 37 km north of Pretoria, and Jane Furse, a small rural town in the Sekhukhune district municipality in Limpopo province.

Finding funds

LEAP is a no-fee organisation that relies on donor funding and support. It operates as an NGO funded by corporate social investment programmes, family foundations, government and individuals who want to improve the education system in South Africa. LEAP is constantly challenged by the need to raise increased funding from private sources, receiving only 15% of the cost per learner from state sources. LEAP’s sustainability model includes increasing income through endowment funding, building relationships with long-term and substantial funders, and diversifying the funder base.

Appreciating ISASA and independence

LEAP values its membership of ISASA, which represents a strong network of schools and teachers. The ISASA Mathematics and English programme7 has supported a cohort of LEAP students each year since its inception and this has been very valuable, both in terms of the funding support it brings and the enrichment it adds to the learning experience of LEAP’s students.

Being an independent teaching and learning institution gives LEAP the autonomy to select its own school leaders and teachers, and to develop and use innovation in teaching approaches and models. LEAP’s immediate plans are to grow the two emerging schools to completion (LEAP 5 and 6 will have their first matric classes in 2015). LEAP plans to use the next year as a period of reflection and consolidation, building the LEAP model into a replicable model of good practice, including creating systems and platforms for the development of teachers and school leaders with national and international partners.

1. See, for example:
2. See:
3. For perspectives on this issue, see: and 20131215083250788
4. See:
5. Ibid.
6. See, for example:
7. See:

Category: Summer 2014

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