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Family matters: the story of a platteland school

| August 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Gavin Scholefield

Founded in 1997, ISASA member Harriston School was established by a group of parents who wanted a quality English-medium school in the small town of Harrismith, in the rural eastern Free State.

Said one of the founders, “I know my boys will be off to university at the age of 18. I want to share their lives with them until then.”

‘Small’ schools such as Harriston have sprung up in so many similar towns throughout the country, modelled on either specific age groups, religious affiliations, particular curricula, languages of instruction, a style of ownership or certain philosophies.

“At ‘arriston, ‘urricanes ‘ardly ever ‘appen”: English the Harriston way

The choice of English as the language of tuition at Harriston was critical. Eastern Free Staters speak at least two languages: either/and/or Sotho, Zulu, Afrikaans and English. So, with few exceptions, our children are multilingual by the age of seven! Our first additional language academic results are superb, as demonstrated by the 2005 head girl, Christelle Vogel, who began her valedictory speech thus:

“I are pleased to being here by Harriston. It teached me to communicate so I can live at London.”

She went on to say, in perfect English:

“When I arrived here, I could hardly speak a word of English – I leave confident that, while I will never lose my Afrikaans identity, I have gained the skills that will allow me to work wherever I wish.”

Turning constraints into benefits

I worry about ‘for-profit’ schools. I worry that the pressure of putting ‘bums on seats’ takes the focus off the essence of good education. This does not mean that we at Harriston ignore the finances. More and more I believe that in a class of more than 20 students in a larger school, while children have the benefit of some attention, so they also have the ability to hide.

Our small size and financial constraints may mean that subject choices are limited, and that some classes are non-viable, but we have maintained an enviably low bad debt ratio and we have been able to keep school fee increases as close to the official inflation rate as possible to assist parents, who are in turn wonderful in assisting us in raising large amounts of funds for ‘nice-to-haves’.

The family that plays together, stays together

Can you sense that it is all about the family at Harriston?

The decision to offer high school classes in 2000 was critical. While we lose good children to the boarding schools of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the majority stay, and the Independent Examinations Board (IEB)1 results for the past 11 years have been very pleasing. So, too, the decision to buy the local preprimary school was an excellent one, and we now have 70 little ones on campus.

The sports scene

Competitive sport is a challenge. This is serious athletics, rugby and netball country, where the need to win is sometimes overwhelming.

We try to take the pressure off children to win by encouraging them to take up sports as diverse as cycling, motocross, horse-riding and dance.

We’ve also developed beneficial partnerships with schools near us, so we can have 15-a-side rugby at under-11 and under- 13 levels, and our joint under-18 side plays good schools league cricket in the area. But we must travel, and travel we do. You haven’t taught till you’ve watched a netball match in Tweeling, a rugby/netball festival in the grounds of the Dutch Reformed Church in Warden, and driven a 22-seater bus full of boisterous team members on the shocking road from Kestell to Reitz!

Sustenance from people of the soil

A high school teacher left recently. The responses from wouldbe replacements were disappointing. But we made a plan, and what a success it has been. The recruitment and retention of staff is another challenge – we cannot match state salaries, nor those of Gauteng. But Harrismith is an inexpensive place in which to live, and the (almost without exception) positive, supportive co-operation with the pupils’ families makes teaching more than just a job. We know the children and their families.

Is it because our children are ‘of the soil’ that discipline is not something imposed by the school, but rather shared by the family and school?

We are able to insist on good manners (make eye contact, smile and greet), and again and again visitors comment so favourably on the conduct and confidence of the pupils.

Far away from the madding crowd

What then of other challenges?

Our relationship with the Department of Basic Education has been a difficult one. The local authorities claim to know nothing about ISASA or the IEB. We have had district authorities arriving unannounced, asking for our teachers’ files for inspection. A full Saturday in QwaQwa on how and why principals should register with the South African Council for Educators (SACE)2 was adroitly avoided. (We registered online in 15 minutes.) The Free State has some 100 independent schools. Three of these do not get a subsidy. Harriston is one of them.

We are 220 km from Pietermaritzburg in KZN and 300 km from Johannesburg in Gauteng on the busy N3 national road. We participate in professional teacher development ‘cluster’ groups in Hilton in KZN, with marvellous colleagues at innovative schools, and we build positive relationships with those friends. The option of ‘e-moderation’ helps a great deal. However, the primary school staff feel isolated. We’ve arranged visits to see best practice, but the fact remains that the opportunities for promotion within the school are minimal, and times are tough.

Improvisation breeds innovation – and excellence

We have learned to be flexible about our roles within the school. There is no specialist cricket coach in Harrismith – but our Grade 1 teacher loves mini-cricket, and she drives the bus! There are no school sports grounds, so we rent the municipal fields, and the 1st IX hockey coach gets her farmer husband to bring the tractor to town to mow the field. There is no catering company through which to outsource the tuckshop, so hardworking teachers give up their breaks alongside Grade 7 and Grade 9 pupils to provide food to their peers. We have reciprocal relationships with other schools to use each other’s buses. Retired teachers are employed to mentor new staff, to coach sport and drive here and there.

We believe that improvisation can breed innovation. To prove it, we celebrate our nationally ranked student pianist, our Aecom-SAICE International Bridge Building team3 (they finished second in the country in 2014), our Rhodes/Mandela Scholarship winner, and an engineer in the making at MIT.4

Keeping it close to home

What then of the future?

There is no doubt that rural, small private schools offer a vital service in a country where the perception exists that state education is in turmoil. But these small centres of excellence will have to continue to think creatively about what they offer, and how they package the product.

We have a school of 280 pupils, and a staff of 22. The pupils are happy and busy, the teachers are creative and approachable and professional – old school. Some are reluctant to embrace new technologies in the classroom; all of them are proud of their children, and develop close relationships with the families of their charges. Through it all the close relationship between staff, parents and pupil is the most important one in the school. Family, family, family.


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Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2015

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