Affordable High Schools on the Mpumalanga Highveld

Grade 7 students in ISASA primary schools on the Mpumalanga Highveld face an uncertain future and difficult decisions at this time of the year.

Although five primary schools have attained academic standards at least equivalent to those in neighbouring state schools, it is difficult for them to find places for their graduates in English-medium, suburban schools that offer the academic standards and values-based education that they have come to appreciate. The schools concerned are Country College in Volksrust, Maranatha School and Alpha and Omega School in eMkhondo (previously Piet Retief), Future Achievers Academy in Middelburg, and Bethal Primary School in Bethal.

Affordable quality education and much more

In the closing years of the 20th century, these schools were started by people inspired by the desire to serve the new democracy in South Africa. The late pastor, Len Watson, of the diverse Wellspring Ministries said he, ‘felt compelled to begin a multi-cultural school, Maranatha School, with the mandate to bring up generations of world-changers.’

In setting up Future Achievers Academy in Middelburg, two former teachers (Marie Botma and her mother Rita J van Rensburg) ‘decided there was a need to start a quality school for the ever-increasing population of the outlying communities,’ while in Bethal, Elize and Louis Botes concluded that ‘starting a school that became Bethal Independent Primary School was the best thing we could do’ towards creating a better South Africa. All faced almost insurmountable challenges, but they were determined to make English-medium primary education available at an affordable cost – today the fees at these schools range between R15 000 and R26 000 per annum.

Despite the modest fees, Future Achievers Academy provides meals throughout the day and supervision until 17:00, as many parents work in town and travel back home with their children after work.

Premium primary schools under pressure

These premium primary schools are all now under considerable pressure from parents and students to start high schools so that the children can continue to enjoy the benefits of English home-language instruction, small classes, teachers who care deeply for them as individuals, and a broad-based curriculum with adequate resources.

Most of the state-run high schools in Volksrust, eMkhondo and Middelburg use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction; children who have attended state primary schools are prioritised for the limited places in their English classes.

Overwhelmingly, the culture of these schools emphasises assimilation, whereas Maranatha views itself as a ‘vehicle for reconciliation by practising transformation rather than assimilation and by valuing all languages and religions,’ even though it is a Christian faithbased school. The parents of children attending these ISASA primary schools are seeking a high school that respects and acknowledges their culture and some steps have already been taken to meet this need.

Courageous steps taken

Alpha and Omega School has already extended its classes to Grade 9, albeit in premises that are rapidly bursting at the seams. The General Education and Training (GET) phase (Grades 7-9) is part of the primary school premises, and run as one unit. The aim is to move Grades 8 and 9 to new premises, and to introduce a Further Education and Training phase (Grades 10-12) as soon as funding becomes available.

Premie Naidoo, the executive head, has taken the additional courageous step to initiate the founding of a separate high school, AO Agri-Tech Business High School, whose goal is to specialise in agriculture, information technology (IT) and business. After years of negotiation, Naidoo has purchased land on the outskirts of eMkhondo to achieve this mission, but funding to build the school still needs to be sourced.

At Future Achievers in Middelburg, the principal, Marie Botma, is actively soliciting support from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) circuit manager in the hope that the municipality may be persuaded to grant the necessary land so that the children have the opportunity to attend a high school with similar academic standards, ethos and fee structure.

Facing similar challenges

The other three Mpumalanga Highveld primary schools mentioned in this article face similar obstacles in their desire to satisfy the needs of their graduating students. These include the cost of land and building, being able to attract and retain suitably qualified teachers, and, most challenging of all, the hoops that have to be jumped through to secure registration with the Department of Basic Education and subsequent accreditation from the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi).

The time to acquire premises and finance as well as to achieve compliance is just not available when school heads already have their hands full fulfilling their mandatory roles. Establishing a high school with qualified subject teachers, who can earn much more in state schools, is a daunting prospect for these intrepid leaders of ISASA primary schools.

All avenues should be explored

Besides attending a school where English is a First Additional language, what other options do these children have? The closure of schools during the 2020 state of disaster has indicated that in families with limited access to educational technology devices and the internet, learning at home is not an alternative. Maranatha School may consider opening an online learning facility for Grades 8 and 9 when numbers warrant such a move.

However, the South African Schools Act does not as yet provide for tutor centres to be registered as schools. The registration of such centres is uncertain at present, although ISASA is actively engaging with the DBE to explore the potential of such solutions.

To meet the 21st century challenges to education in South Africa, which is now exacerbated by COVID-19, all avenues should be explored to provide high school education to children who have benefitted from the strong foundations offered by ISASA primary schools, so that they can indeed become ‘a generation of world-changers’ as envisaged by Pastor Len.