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How to survive Umalusi

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

She’s been dubbed “Ouma Lucy”  in our staff room. She is the mother of all school audits…

The Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi)2 first struck fear into me way back in 2013 when our little school, Bedford Country School (BCS) in the Eastern Cape, was only four years old. Back then, we (the school management team) had to pay what was hard-earned money, earmarked for precious resources, as part of the Umalusi registering process. We eked it out and then filed it away at the back of our busy minds. We were having far too much fun setting up this gem of a school. Besides, we were also busy getting our 50-strong student cohort ready for the Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA)3 evaluation process and site visit that was to happen the following year.
With IQAA under our belts and rave reviews from our mentor, we came to the end of 2014 and the future looked bright. We were actually surprised at what a positive experience it had been.
Umalusi was quiet… for a time.

Life in a “small” school
I became head of BCS in 2015 when we opened up a Grade 4 class. Our parents were cautious at first, but as our curriculum and extramural programme expanded, our numbers started swelling. We were able to buy another building in which to house our pre-school and Grade R children, and also bought a bus to transport children from Adelaide to Bedford.
In 2016, we opened Grade 5 and the excitement was palpable throughout the school and community. Our numbers were inching towards 80 children. Towards the end of 2016, we decided to hire the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) Pastorie (manse) and start a boarding house for our children who lived on the outlying farms.
One thing any “small” head (yes, that’s what we’re called by the “big” heads) will tell you is that you are everything to everybody. You are needed to teach, coach sport, drive the bus, organise functions, take the school’s rubbish to the tip, move boarding house furniture around, find someone to fix broken windows and drain pipes and sniff out missing keys. By the time, you have finally arrived at your desk, everyone has been looking for you and wants to organise meetings.
And I love every minute of it!
We have an open-door policy at our school and I want my teachers and parents to call on me when they need me. I want to sit outside during break and “jam” with my staff, and I want to run around on the tennis court in the blazing February sun coaching red-faced children. This is what energises me and makes what I do worthwhile.
What I don’t want to do, however, and what leaves me completely exhausted and confused, is ploughing through another policy to see whether we have covered everything and whether there are no discrepancies with the way the school is run. Because I have been warned that when “they” (Umalusi) come, “they” will interrogate me to see if I know the policies off by heart!

Just when you thought it was safe…
Anyway, back to 2017.
We had a very small Grade 3 class in that year and I made
the decision to teach full-time again. It wasn’t going to make financial sense to employ a new teacher for such a small class, and the Grade 2 class was too big, so combining them was out of the question. We have controlled class sizes of up to 15 children. This corresponds with our motto, which is: “Where every child has every chance every day to learn with love and laughter.” We need to get to each of the children in our classes every single day.
In hindsight, it might not have been the best decision, because as any teacher will tell you, whether you teach five or 15 children, the preparation work and amount of input is exactly the same.
And so it was that in March 2017, my bursar and I were summoned to a meeting in Port Elizabeth (PE) about the assessment online submission process. Umalusi was closing in! Upon arrival, our delight soon turned into despair when a file as thick as a brick was thrust into our hands.
This was it. There was no getting out of it now.

A painstaking process
Back at school, I was back in the throes of school life – helping, teaching, coaching, meeting, marketing, managing, educating. I carefully placed the Umalusi file so that I could only see it when I turned my neck at 90 degrees.
I knew that I needed to open that file and take note of what was expected of me. I say “me”, because I had long ago taken the decision to not involve my teachers in this process. I needed them to be where they were meant to be, and that was in their classrooms. Of course, we discussed the impending submission over coffee at break times and it featured on our agenda during our weekly staff meetings. But no way was I going to put this burden on them.
Another six months dragged on and then, one day, I received an email requesting me to pay (again!) for the online submission and to register to get the process started. The deadline of submission was at the beginning of October.
Not a problem, considering I had a 10-day holiday ahead. I would just have to spend less time with my own family and any trips would need to be cancelled.
While ploughing away through paperwork and writing 500- word narratives on how our school helps children with barriers and how our school is seen to promote the values of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), I realised a few things:
First, that it was actually very easy to write the narratives, as I knew our school intimately and had first-hand knowledge of every minute detail. I believe in what we do and where we are heading to and that we are making a difference in our community. Second, and as a result of the IQAA process, we already had much of the required documentation and I was able to submit everything that was needed.
Third, and to my utmost horror, I was the Grade 3 teacher! (If you know the Umalusi requirements, you’ll also know that they focus their attention on grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.) I was truly alone…
At the end of the holiday and with a few days to spare, I pressed SEND on my laptop.

The site visit
I knew that the next step would be the much-dreaded site visit. Through chatting to other school heads at our ISASA regional meetings, I wasn’t looking forward to it at all.
For now, that file was back at 90 degrees and out of my peripheral vision. We had more important things to do, and that was to determine whether grades 6 and 7 were a viable option for our school. This was all part of our board’s five-year plan that was put together in 2015 and which is called “Vision 2020”.
At the beginning of 2018, a survey went out to our parents (by the way, surveys are important to Umalusi). The response was overwhelmingly in favour of opening these two classes.
We employed two new teachers for grades 2 and 3, and I was able to step out of the classroom again and only teach part time. Surely, this would leave me with more time to open that file…
This time, I started by reconsidering the history of our school. It’s situated in an historic building that was known as the Bedford Public School in the late 1800s. Back then, Reverend Templeton was the headmaster (and general dog’s body) and a man who surely didn’t have to worry about Umalusi. After the building and grounds became too small to meet the demands of the growing number of children, the beautiful double-storey building was used as the Presbyterian Church manse, and by the time it was bought back as a school in 2009, it had been a B&B for a couple of years.
In July 2018, it was time to do another revamp and change and adjust our beloved building to suit our needs. The office was moved to what was the old ablution block, new toilets were installed in the old office and the entrance hall was restored to its original place. Amid this chaos and two days before the school was to close for the three-week winter holidays, the office phone, which was lying under a pile of dust and papers, rang…

Dreary delays
Umalusi was on its way… straight after the holidays.
My heart sank, but there was no way out of it. Where was
that file again? Oh yes, buried under the rubble of my office. The holidays went by and I was in a bad mood. Our school
was a building site, my bursar was away on a long-awaited five- week overseas holiday and I was in charge of our biggest fundraiser, which was also straight after the holidays. “Please let there be an intervention,” I prayed.
And there was. A phone call on the first morning back at school confirmed that Umalusi was going to have to postpone their visit due to unforeseen circumstances. It would have to be moved to November. Yay!
Building work at the school was completed and now the task of appointing an extra teacher for our intermediate phase classes and acquiring extra resources in anticipation of our new grades began in all earnest. In the meantime, we were rolling on to the end of the year and the impending site visit.
And then another phone call… the site visit had to be called off again, as it was too late in the year.

A mixed bag of emotions
What I have learned from this experience is that there is no getting out of being “Umalusi-ed”. I’m on a first-name basis with basically the whole department in Pretoria. And they are, surprisingly, very friendly people who want to help you (when they have a moment). It has cost our “small” school a whack of money in registering and submission fees. To be on the safe side, we also called in our town electrician to come and do an overhaul at the school. Very expensive. The health and safety officer didn’t like the few cracks that appeared as a result of the ongoing drought, and we had to replaster and repaint two of our classrooms. Did I mention that I’m also on first-name basis with the South African Council of Educators (SACE)5 officials? Also very friendly people if they answer their phones… My Grade 3 and Grade 6 teachers are living in fear that they aren’t doing enough, even though I know that they are. Our site visit was rescheduled and confirmed for 27 February 2019. Coincidentally, our school is also celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, and we now have over 100 children in our care.
What galls me, however, is that for the majority of this time, we have been subjected to audits. Although it has in some way guided us into being compliant with everything that can be thrown at us, I am also certain that it’s held us back in many ways. Is this not the very reason why we are an independent school? Is Umalusi also going to swing past the state-owned schools in our area and check up on policies and cracks in the walls?
In the meantime, here in the real world, we are cracking on with celebrations, dinners and parties to celebrate what we have achieved in the last decade. Most importantly, we are continuing to do the best, under often challenging circumstances, to make sure that our children are “learning and loving it!”

A few weeks later… Yesterday they came, they saw and
hopefully we’ve conquered. Today I feel drained and so does everyone at school, but at least it’s over and we can carry on with “menial” things like teaching, learning and growing our school!
Advice? I don’t have much wisdom to part with. What remain with me, however, are a lot of questions, such
as, why do we have to participate in an IQAA evaluation, as well as an Umalusi one? Why can the two not be combined? If we are to be evaluated by IQAA every six years, does that mean that we are due again next year? Sorry, but we already have other plans for 2020, such as completing our school’s Vision 2020 and starting another one.
I suppose only time will tell.

Ammie Pringle is principal at Bedford Country School in the
Eastern Cape.

1. The Afrikaans word “ouma” means “grandmother” in English.
2. See:
3. See:
4. See:
5. See:

Category: Autumn 2019

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