Curiosity and wonder: the Grace Primary School story

| November 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

BY JUDY MCCOMB

Grace Primary School was established in January 2014 to provide high-quality, affordable private schooling, based on Christian foundations, to Pinelands and the surrounding community in Cape Town in the Western Cape.

It was founded by three Pinelands couples, whose eldest children all joined the first class at the school. They were
motivated by a desire for a curriculum based on biblical truth and values, and that is richer, more stimulating and less assessment-driven than the South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum 1 currently offers.

The school began in rented church facilities with one mixedgrade class of 14 children, one teacher and one administrator. The founding parents were integrally involved in managerial responsibilities and have continued to be involved by serving on the school board as the school has grown. The church premises were only able to accommodate the school for the first few years and therefore from the start, the school board was actively
involved in investigating possible permanent premises for the school.

In 2015, the school was successful in purchasing 8 Protea Close, one of the last plots of land zoned for community use in the Pinelands area, originally having been earmarked for an Afrikaans school in the 1950s. The plot itself is roughly 2 400 m2, ideal for a school with single grades and a maximum of 18 children in each class. An adjacent public park provides additional recreation space. We are grateful to be able to leverage community facilities for our sports offering. Building plans were approved by the municipal council at the beginning of April 2016, with construction beginning shortly thereafter, so as to have the first phase of the school building project completed in time for the 2017 school year.

New classes and a proud principal

The school currently has four classes (grades 1–5 with grades 4 and 5 in a joint class), growing by a new Grade 1 class every year until we have the full complement of seven grades. We also hope to add a Grade R class once space allows. With this steady growth, we are already planning phase two of our building project, which will complete the space requirements needed for our school. In January 2016, the board appointed Mabel Laubscher as school principal. She came to us with nearly four decades of diverse teaching and managerial experience gained in four countries around the world. She was supportive of our educational philosophy and Christian ethos and, having prior involvement in pioneering school contexts, brought helpful expertise to the areas of curriculum development, the development of school management systems and the healthy growth of the school as a whole.

A Charlotte Mason school

One of the key reasons motivating the founding of Grace Primary was the recognition that for education to be effective, it needs to be rooted in a philosophy that actively engages with some of the fundamental questions, i.e. “What is education for?” and “Who are we educating?” We were particularly inspired by the writings of Charlotte Mason (1842–1923), a British Christian educational reformer who founded the Parents National Education Union (PNEU).2 She developed an educational approach that cultivated an optimal learning atmosphere, developed balanced relationships and habits, and provided her students with a rich, stimulating and living curriculum, with the hope that children educated in this way would give back to society and culture. Our core belief, which frames the education we seek to offer, is that a child is not a vessel to be filled or a lump of clay to be moulded. Every child is a person, created in the image of God – equal in worth, dignity, wonder, complexity and basic needs. At Grace Primary, we want to inspire and stimulate the inherent curiosity of children through a knowledge-rich curriculum,
enabling them to explore the treasures of their natural and cultural heritage. We believe that growth in learning is fostered as children are nurtured in rich relationships with the knowledge of God, man and the universe, and are encouraged to observe and attend to the world around them in art, music, literature and nature. We care about both attitudes and academics, particularly about the child’s attitude to learning itself. The current pressure to get results can come at too high a price, obscuring the central purpose of education, which is to prepare young people for life.
Some of the central priorities that shape our teaching and learning at Grace Primary include: A Christian ethos: The Christian faith shapes our understanding of the human person, and of healthy human development. It encourages us to place the highest priority on considerate relationships and to work for a culture marked by kindness. Our Christian beliefs and values are explored in assemblies, and daily Bible reading is part of our curriculum.
While the school culture is informed by Christian ideals  we are always respectful of the fact that children must form their own considered perspectives. We welcome children from all backgrounds and encourage them to explore the “big questions” of human existence.

Self-education: Children enter school full of curiosity and wonder, and this natural interest can be sustained and honed by means of a stimulating curriculum, which is its own reward. We therefore encourage children to be proactive in the process of engaging with knowledge and to take ownership for their own learning, rather than artificially motivating them through merit systems. The importance of self-education also has implications
for the teacher’s role. They are not the showman or the fount of knowledge but a mentor or guide, whose role is to help pupils engage with the curriculum for themselves, as well as to nurture in them the desire and habits in life to ask good questions and turn to sound source materials for enlightenment.
Training in habits: We believe that healthy personal development includes helping children develop their powers of self-management, or self-discipline. We recognise that it is possible to be well educated but yet to lack virtue or moral courage. We are therefore proactive in our approach to discipline, encouraging the formation of good habits in all areas of life – be they moral, physical or intellectual.
A nurturing school environment: We care about relationships and believe that children will learn best and
develop a love for learning when they are happy, stimulated and supported. We provide a safe environment where mutual respect, consideration and cooperation prevail. Our relatively small size as a whole and our class sizes mean that each child is noticed, and belongs.
A knowledge-rich, stimulating curriculum:

  • Our curriculum aims to be broad and rich, meaning that both breadth of focus and stimulating content are
    required to develop children in their interests and competencies. We believe that good school books are
    core to a rich curriculum, as they provide a medium for ideas to be transferred from one generation to the next
    across all disciplines. Children should learn to enjoy whole books, not just summarised extracts, as this
    develops the patience to engage with a sustained argument or narrative, allowing them to become reasoned
    and careful thinkers.
  • Our unique emphasis upon narration also helps to lay a secure knowledge base. Narration is the process of
    retelling, point by point, what was just read aloud, having heard it only once. It is not mere memorisation, but
    includes feelings and reactions to the text. Narration encourages attentive listening and teaches children to
    verbalise their learning. It is not so much telling what you know as it is telling so that you can know. Narration also leads naturally into discussion of the key ideas presented, and it forms the basis for high-quality essay writing, particularly at the senior level. As the skill of narration develops, students become confident communicators of the spoken and written word.
  • Learning “out and about” is also prioritised at Grace Primary. Whether it is nature walks or educational
    excursions, these outings enrich the learning taking place in the classroom and provide the children with the
    opportunity to explore natural beauty, museums, art exhibits and other places of learning. Each class goes on
    two excursions per term, in addition to regular nature walks. The children also enjoy termly “handicraft days”,
    where they learn a new practical skill such as sewing, woodworking, cooking, knitting, French knitting,
    decoupage and other interesting crafts.

School identity shaped by its cultural contexts

As a school, we are a non-profit (NPC) and a public benefit organisation (PBO), seeking to keep our fees as affordable as possible to serve a diversity of children. Whilst many children are Pinelands based, we currently have enrolled children from as far afield as Khayelitsha, Strandfontein, the central business district, Goodwood and Ottery. Many Cape Town families are eager for their children to have a better educational experience than is made possible by local underfunded, overstretched government schools, but cannot access better-quality schools in more affluent suburbs. We feel privileged to have a genuine diversity of children – roughly one third each from our three main population groups in the Western Cape – as part of the school family, and to be one of a growing number of independent schools seeking to make a difference to the struggling educational scene in this country.
Since our school serves both Pinelands and surrounding areas, we encourage the development of relationships within our broader school family through family socials, collaboration on school fundraisers, parent participation on school outings, and joining together for a variety of celebrations at our assemblies and end-of-year concerts.
As we grow, we hope to become increasingly integrated into our local community and beyond, both through finding ways to serve real needs and to learn from members of our community who have particular expertise in different areas. We have already been greatly helped by community-minded retired teachers, who have given freely of their time to help our school in various capacities and have been a source of great encouragement to our
school.

Others eager to share
We have been privileged from the early days to receive expertise and help from other independent schools, both local and abroad. In particular, we are grateful to The Vine School in Lansdowne and to the Trinity Children’s Centre in Mitchells Plain for the assistance they gave us in our early days and for the encouragement they have continued to give us as we have grown. Their experience in the independent school sector and their wise counsel have been invaluable to us. In addition, we have been privileged to be informally linked to Heritage School in Cambridge in the UK, staffed by seasoned thinkers about the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason and with great experience in applying her principles to 21st century schooling. They have shared their expertise with us on a variety of levels –
from curriculum development to teacher training – and have enabled our principal and other board members to visit their school and learn “in action”. With the steady growth of the school, we have also slowly built relationships with other schools in our local community, and have been pleased this year to become an ISASA school. Joining ISASA has helped us to understand our rights and responsibilities as an independent school in the South African
landscape, and has given us access to necessary expertise and recruitment channels. As we face the challenge of onerous compliance imposed by the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi), we are particularly grateful for the support of the ISASA team as they engage with the government on this issue. experience in applying her principles to 21st century schooling. They have shared their expertise with us on a variety of levels – from curriculum development to teacher training – and have enabled our principal and other board members to visit their school and learn “in action”. With the steady growth of the school, we have also slowly
built relationships with other schools in our local community, and have been pleased this year to become an ISASA school. Joining ISASA has helped us to understand our rights and responsibilities as an independent school in the South African landscape, and has given us access to necessary expertise and  recruitment channels. As we face the challenge of onerous compliance imposed by the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi), we are particularly grateful for the support of the ISASA team as they engage with the government on this issue.

How did you do it?
One of our greatest challenges is to source sufficient funding for our building project, since these funds are not raised through school fees but through donations and loans. Since we are a suburban school with a Christian ethos primarily needing assistance with capital expenses, it has been difficult trying to access South African trust funds that donate to educational initiatives. We are thankful for the possibility provided by development organisation Garden Cities to purchase a small plot of land zoned for education in Pinelands, and for the opportunity to build phase 1 of our permanent premises through the assistance of some very generous donors from the UK. However, the need continues as we prepare for phase 2 of our build.
We would say that funding and building has been the biggest challenge that we have faced thus far and are still facing as we grow, leading many parents from other parts of Cape Town and beyond to ask us, “How have you done it?”, as they have also been concerned with the challenges in government schooling and are eager to start similar ventures. We have met with a number of these parents and encouraged them on their journey, but this challenge of finances and land/buildings is an obstacle for many of these groups as well and, in some cases,prevents them from starting.

 

References:
1. See: https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/Curriculum
AssessmentPolicyStatements(CAPS).aspx
2. See: https://simplycharlottemason.com/what-is-the-charlotte-mason-method/
3. Garden Cities’ work is dedicated to the development of entire suburbs, the
construction of houses and public buildings and the nurturing of education
equality through providing school halls to redress decades of disadvantage.
(Source: http://www.gardencities.co.za/)

 

 

 

 

Category: Summer 2017

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