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Bulungula College: creating a model for rural high school excellence

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


In January 2019, Bulungula College (BC) opened its doors to 75 Grade 10 learners.

We are a no-fee independent school that strives to provide access to excellent high school education for all learners – regardless of academic ability – in the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. BC is located in one of the most remote, under-resourced and rural parts of South Africa. Access to quality education, opportunities for self-development and employment are some of the most challenging in the country. In an area where it is virtually unheard of for a school to be operational five days a week, with high-quality teachers present in the classroom from 08:00 to 16:00, BC aims to create a bold new culture of education in our area. In addition, we are working within financial constraints. We want to limit the cost per learner to the amount that government spends on high school learners, because our parents cannot afford to pay school fees.

Bulungula Incubator – our sister organisation

BC was born out of the work done by the Bulungula Incubator (BI).1 The BI began working in the Eastern Cape more than a decade ago in an area that was classified as a black ‘homeland’ under apartheid. There was no road, no running water, no electricity, no sanitation of any kind and no access to healthcare or functional schooling. Fifty-three per cent of households had lost at least one child to diarrhoea (due to lack of access to clean water), and one in nine had lost three or more children. Still today, the Mbhashe Municipality, where BC is situated, is the poorest municipality in South Africa (as per the latest available census data).2 The BI has been contributing to solutions for our communities through its Pre-Conception to Career programme, from health in pregnancy through to the support needed by a student at the vocational stage. At every stage of the programme, the BI helps people to seek innovative solutions appropriate to our remote and rural location. The BI emphasises the importance of a strong relationship with the immediate community. Where possible, long-term sustainability is developed through ongoing training of, and skills transfer to, the community committees that manage each project and the staff members who come from the area. Key to the BI’s success has been fostering an excellent relationship with traditional leadership and the community as a whole. Community representation on its board is enshrined in the BI’s constitution. Its work over the past 15 years has been to build innovative strategies in partnership with our communities, government departments and other organisations to walk the path together, through to the last mile.

Why a college?

In 2015, the BI conducted a survey in the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area, and it emerged that a staggering 95% of people had never completed Grade 12. The reasons are not difficult to ascertain: there was no high school in the Xhora Mouth area and no functioning scholar transport to any high school or college. Learners who wanted to continue beyond Grade 9 had to rent accommodation away from their families and care for themselves, while still young and vulnerable teenagers. Furthermore, the nearest institution that offered Grades 10–12 struggled to maintain a strong matric pass rate as it battled under the restraints of historical under-resourcing. There was one government ‘junior secondary school’ ( JSS) that offered up to Grade 9 in the area. It is our strong belief that:

• educated and well-cared for children will carry families out of poverty and contribute to a thriving South Africa in the future

• everyone deserves access to quality education, not only academically gifted learners.

The BI’s approach has always been to identify challenges in the community and to build interventions that will successfully and innovatively address these challenges. Education has always been a strong focus. The first BI project, launched in 2007, was to build classrooms for the local No-Ofisi JSS, as the previous mud building had collapsed. Subsequently, a fully functional early childhood development (ECD) programme has been established, comprising facilitated weekly home groups for toddlers and their parents, and four excellent early learning centres (ELCs) across the four villages that make up the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area. Our focus for primary (and junior secondary) schooling has been to support and supplement the education offered by government schools in the area. This is done through afterschool programmes and by harnessing and developing technology in subjects (English and mathematics) where the learners need most support. BC is the next step. The college has been designed, implemented and managed in partnership with our community and has the full support of local leadership structures. BC works with parents, teachers and the Department of Basic Education, and strengthens local government feeder schools to ensure that all learners can benefit from a quality education and reach their full potential. Instead of focusing on academic ability, we have set our admission criterion as the geographical boundary of the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area. We have taken on the task of building a model for how to get all learners through high school – regardless of their starting point – in a region with the most under-resourced schools in the country. It is an innovative and exciting challenge, but one that we believe will yield an enormous impact on our community.

Academics and teaching staff

In January 2019, BC welcomed its first intake of Grade 10 learners. Each year, we will expand the college by adding one additional grade, first Grade 11 and then Grade 12. Following a rigorous application process, monitored by renowned East London educator and previous head of Hudson Park High School (East London), Roy Hewitt, I was appointed as project manager and the first principal of BC in October 2017. (Incidentally, Roy remains a mentor to me and has been involved in recruiting and interviewing all of our academic staff.) I graduated with a Diploma in Education in 1995. I also furthered my studies in education with an Advanced Certificate in Education and a BEd Honours (mathematics) degree in 2012 and 2016 respectively. I am currently completing my final year towards a masters degree in education (in physical sciences) at Walter Sisulu University. I also have a passion for research in the field of educational sciences: a scarce skill in South Africa. My research focus is on blended learning in mathematics and physical sciences. I am strongly of the view that academic supervision does not only mean overseeing the successful completion of the learner curriculum: more importantly, it must foster the development of a balanced and independent learner who is able to think creatively and take their own education forward. We have recruited a small but dedicated academic staff complement of five, who are well trained to provide the subjects offered by BC. These are:

• agricultural sciences

• business studies

• English first additional language

• isiXhosa home language

• life orientation

• life sciences

• mathematics.

These subjects have been chosen with the needs of the community in mind, and because they can strengthen our learners’ skills – which means they can study further and/or make a positive practical contribution to their community. As the school grows, we will add other subjects. We are also looking to partner with a technical institute that will provide accreditation, administration and teaching support for practical and artisanal professions. This will enable our youth to become preschool teachers, nurses, commercial farmers or solar electricians, while making it possible for academically inclined learners to pursue languages, science, medicine or engineering. Being associated with the BI allows us to tap into resources of existing BI projects, and to offer additional practical educational opportunities for our learners that would otherwise be unheard of in a rural community. The BI is engaged with projects relating to agriculture, environmental care, sports and culture, and e-learning – all of which enrich the experience of our college learners. Learners are also exposed to potential vocations such as teaching and nursing (through ECD and home-based care projects), entrepreneurship (through the BI’s sustainable livelihoods projects) and tourism (through the award-winning Bulungula Lodge).

Bridging year

One of the first issues we identified was that despite support from the BI, the local JSS still struggled with the challenges arising out of severely constrained resources. We decided to introduce supplementary sessions to support and prepare learners to enter their further education and training (FET) phase3 with the best possible foundation in place. As a result, our 2019 Grade 10 learners have completed an intensive bridging year programme over weekends and holidays during their Grade 9 year, to ready them for the expectations of the college. (Similarly, we are currently repeating the programme with next year’s Grade 10 intake.) The focuses of these classes are mathematics and English. Students are also given homework and tutoring support in other subjects where needed. The bridging year syllabus is made up of both teacher support, as well as the use of excellent online resources.


BC values a holistic approach to education. Through extracurricular activities, the college instils the concept of ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’. So far, we offer the following sporting codes: soccer (both girls and boys), netball, softball, volleyball, traditional and indigenous games, chess and draughts, and athletics. As the school expands, we look forward to increasing the number of sporting codes on offer, and to participating in sports events – particularly with and against other ISASA schools. We have also introduced a self-leadership and personal development programme to help learners to grow emotionally, intellectually and socially. The learners are encouraged to practise independence in all aspects of their lives, but especially when it comes to learning. Students have also been introduced to concepts such as the BC motto of ‘Umntu ngumntu ngabantu’ and the Grade 10 guiding questions: ‘What is my learning agenda? What do I need to learn right now?’ There is a focus on journalling and ‘check-ins’, so that they can learn to reflect and to express themselves. Motivational videos help learners realise the importance of having goals for their lives while working hard. Other focuses of the selfleadership programme are:

• inviting guest speakers to talk about prospective careers so that students can make well-informed career choices

• forming clubs and societies, where learners will have to do activities that will help them develop holistically – debating, music, drama, etc.

• supporting learner leadership through self-leadership sessions.

The BC agriculture project

In our deeply rural area, BC’s agriculture project was introduced to inculcate sustainable practical life skills in learners. It is a platform for practical-orientated learners to develop ways to provide cheap and healthy sources of food for themselves and the community. The project also fosters a culture of responsible behaviour through the rotation of duties and responsibilities, and emphasises the importance of using indigenous knowledge to solve problems. At the beginning of the year, a suitable piece of land to establish a garden was identified, considering the edaphic (soil) and physiographic factors. Masilime Ngqo – the farming project that forms part of BI’s sustainable livelihoods programme – provided tilling implements and demonstrated how to prepare the land for planting. (The greater part of the ground was tilled by learners who came to school late, as a corrective measure, under staff supervision.) A community member donated a truckload of kraal manure. Learners have also learned how to assemble and install a simple drip irrigation system using perforated pipes and an open drum, and they were taught how to connect a portable water pump to a 12-volt solar chargeable battery to pump water from the river. Differential planting is practised, which means that different crops are planted at different times to maintain a continuous supply from the garden and to stagger harvesting times. The classes have a duty roster to pump water from the river into the drum and water the garden, and to otherwise tend to the garden.

ISASA affiliation

One of the schools I previously worked at was an ISASA member, so I have long been aware of the benefits of belonging to a body of independent schools. I am a strong believer in the power of collaboration, and of sharing ideas and challenges. For a new school in a deeply rural setting, being able to join the ISASA network of independent schools was a ‘no-brainer’. Besides being able to access a community of independent educators – some with similar challenges – so that we as educators and administrators can remain motivated, I’m most excited about the following benefits of ISASA membership: • Gaining access to expertise: The programmes ISASA offers for teacher and managerial development will be extremely beneficial to BC.

• Tapping into ISASA school policies: For a new school without an experienced or educated parent body, having access to the expertise demonstrated in the policies developed by ISASA is very important.

• Interacting with other ISASA schools: One of the important ways we will build a stronger South Africa is through facilitating interaction. ISASA offers this through workshops and training sessions, regional meetings and national conferences. By becoming acquainted with other ISASA members, we can participate in exciting sporting and cultural competitions and tournaments. We are particularly looking forward to such exchanges with other ISASA schools. We believe that not only will our learners benefit from spending time in a better equipped/urban school, but that we are uniquely placed to offer other learners a true insight into rural South Africa that they would otherwise not access. Even though the BC only joined ISASA in May 2019, we have already benefited from being affiliated with such an established body. We always will be grateful for the support of ISASA’s regional office as we finalised our registration with the Department of Basic Education – even before we had formally joined the association.

Closing the gap

There is enormous power in being an independent school. For BC, independence means being able to make real strides in closing the gap of educational disparity in South Africa in the rural Eastern Cape, where education has been most neglected. Our independence enables us to create a different model/curriculum for rural, indigent learners, so that they can shine in whichever vocation they are drawn to. We know that we will make mistakes along the way, but we hope that the model for rural school excellence that we build will be worthy of replication in other rural environments. We look forward to sharing our journey with the ISASA community.

Réjane Woodroffe is the director and a founding member of the Bulungula Incubator. Sara Hilliard Garratt offers strategic and organisational support to NGO’s, SMMEs, and social enterprises.


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Category: Spring 2019

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