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Remaining optimistic in tough times: Mitchell House School’s early childhood development centre

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


Despite the sociopolitical turmoil caused by revelations of state capture and a downturn in an already sluggish economy,1 in 2016, Mitchell House School in Polokwane, Limpopo, decided to increase its preparatory school grades from two classes to three.

We felt that if we could break even in the tough times, we would be in a strong position to take advantage of an upturn when it came. I had also tired of turning perfectly capable pupils and their families away from entry simply because we had no room for them. Initially, we reckoned that we would begin with Grade 0 only, but we were encouraged by our enrolment to offer three classes in both Grade 0 and Grade 1. We thought that we would simply add classes to our junior phase classroom block and get on with it. But the more we thought about it, the more we realised that early childhood is its own country: the young students deserved a place of wonder before they embarked upon the formal journey of the foundation phase. Encouraged by the CEO of the bank with whom we had just signed, who had challenged his directors to create an early childhood development (ECD) centre and promised help with the infrastructural development, we commissioned our school architect to develop some plans. We had a budget and we went on fact-finding tours of what was inspirational in the field. All seemed to be well on track. Then the bank said that it was far more interested in supporting human capital development than infrastructure, and the architect produced drawings that we fell in love with, but at twice our budget. However, we decided to go for it anyway.

The new ECD centre takes shape

The award-winning design of the ECD centre enabled us to build it in two parts. This was fortunate, because we anticipated most pressure for entry in Grade 000 (an inaugural class) and Grade 00. We also only had money for the first part, so the decision was made much simpler for us and the three Grade 0 classes had to wait for phase two of the build. Over the next 18 months, we watched in awe as the ECD centre took shape. It was bigger than I had anticipated, it was prettier than I had imagined it would be (and yet somehow echoed the language of the school’s architecture whilst being strikingly different, too) and it fulfilled the brief of being a place of wonder for our children. In 2019, we completed the second phase of the building – the three Grade 3 classrooms – and concluded the build by creating two beautiful ‘astroturfed’ playgrounds, complete with sensory gardens that children actually played in. Having had little help from our bank with the infrastructure, we optimistically put our human resources pitch to them. We would provide a year’s practical teaching internship experience to candidates from rural preschools who were in their final year of academic qualification. The deal involved returning to rural areas for the period that they had benefited from training at Mitchell House.

Planning practical teaching internships

Sixteen candidates were envisaged, but because we could not provide accommodation for them, we would require the assistance of our bank to offer them a stipend for them to travel to and from the school. If they could not provide for all 16 (for the ECD and the foundation phase classes), perhaps they could consider six interns for the ECD classes? We already support seven interns at various levels in our school (including two SAMSTIP interns),2 and I had employed a former headmistress of a Diepsloot school whom I felt could provide the fiercely focused mentorship that these interns required. She would be in an excellent position to help the interns transition to a better-resourced independent school, having just made the journey herself.

An undeniably good idea

Although we have had assurances of interest from our bank that they are interested, to date we have not had confirmation of their support. The plan seemed to have such potential for a worthwhile partnership: the students would be exposed to best practice in the classroom (and receive much-needed financial support to conclude their studies) and we would benefit from having an extra pair of hands in each class and the advantage of both English and mother-tongue instruction from the intern teachers. They would be able to gain from exposure to English culture and we from their (largely Sepedi) culture. We had discussions with the departments of Basic Education and Social Development, and they seemed enthusiastic. If the initiative was successful, it could provide a model for many other affluent schools to do something similar. Our erstwhile bank (we moved away from it recently) is still in the process of deciding whether or not to back the programme. I hope that it will. Because we think it is such a good idea, we are planning to go ahead, whether it does or not. Other likely sources of sponsorship have felt that because Mitchell House is such a ‘wealthy’ school, we should be doing this ourselves, and not depending on others to assist with the programme. Notwithstanding the pronouncement from Cyril Ramaphosa that money is to be found to make two years of ECD compulsory,3 it seems that when it comes to actually supporting these initiatives with financial backing, corporates and others are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is.

Mitchell House School interested in true community engagement

To my mind, this is a method of teaching communities to fish rather than making them dependent on fish. It would become sustainable as only true partnerships are sustainable because it would be beneficial, for both parties.

Andrew Cook is headmaster at Mitchell House School in Polokwane, Limpopo.


  1. The South African Mathematics and Science Teacher Intern Programme (SAMSTIP) draws on the quality education offered by Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) member schools to help solve a root cause of South Africa’s pressing skills shortage – the critical lack of qualified mathematics and science teachers.
  2. See:
  3. See:

Category: Autumn 2020

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