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Welcome to Winterberg School

| January 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


Winterberg School is nestled in the Winterberg mountains in a remote part
of the Eastern Cape.

As you drive over the hilly and winding dirt road, flanked by rocky farmland, the school seems to appear from nowhere. Visitors can’t believe what they see when they drive up the hedge-lined driveway, into a well-maintained, colourful school ground. You’d almost be less surprised to see a kudu than this school in the middle of nowhere.

In fact, it is this remoteness that led to the school being established. In 1990, the Winterberg Farmers’ Association set up a trust and raised funds to purchase land, on which the initial school buildings were built. In the district there were a series of individual farm schools, which provided rudimentary teaching in basic buildings. The amalgamation of these 13 individual schools within the community onto one property allowed the provision of improved teaching, facilities, infrastructure and electricity.

The intention was to improve significantly the prospects of farm workers’ children and to provide access to quality education, whilst allowing children to stay living at home with their families. The school offers an alternative to attending a school in town, where children would need to stay away from home or travel up to 80 km each day on rugged dirt roads.

School buses clock up 700 km each day

The Winterberg School Trust opened its doors to students in 1993 and has been in operation ever since. Over the years, the school’s size and focus grew, with multiple projects including youth empowerment initiatives and adult skills development classes. For a period of time, the core school was government run and known as Sosebenza (‘let us work together’), but the
isolated area and pupil to teacher ratio was not sustainable and the educators were redeployed to other government schools. The trust itself had always remained independent, and at the time that the Sosebenza state school was closed, the Winterberg School Trust decided to continue to offer education to the children in the community, and to focus on early childhood development and foundation phase education.

Our intent is to provide the most underprivileged children in the community access to quality education. Our hope is to improve the opportunities open to these children, and to help them build brighter futures. The school caters for Grade 00 to Grade 5, teaching 80 pupils. In the district, over 95% of farm workers’ children of suitable age attend this school. For older children, the school operates a taxi service, transporting students to other schools in Tarkastad for Grade 6 and up. The school buses clock up more than 700 km each day, ferrying 140 children from the farms to the Winterberg School, or on to Tarkastad to the high schools, and back again.

All of our learners and most of our teaching staff speak isiXhosa as a home language. Five of our teachers and staff once attended the Winterberg School, and have come back to teach as qualified educators and class monitors. We are so proud of all they’ve achieved, and love that they’ve come home to help the next generation of learners reach their potential. It is this kind of sustainable societal change that we are working towards.
Tarkastad is a small farming town, and there are very few employment opportunities in the area outside of the local stores, farm labour and domestic work, so we are happy that the school provides work and learning opportunities to people in the community.

Creating a culture of literacy

We have a focus on literacy; developing strong reading and writing foundations is a theme across our curriculum and activities. Each grade has a computer class each week, when students interact with programmes with a literacy focus. We have recently added numeracy computer programmes to complement that component of the curriculum. Our school library is a key aspect of encouraging reading, and we’ve been fortunate to have books donated over the years. Of course, we are constantly looking to expand our collections, particularly books in isiXhosa, so that we can help children to read in their mother tongue as well as in English, which is the language of
teaching. Each week, the children take books home to read with their families.

Many of the children have learning difficulties, some cases stemming from foetal alcohol syndrome. We have a remedial teacher on our staff, who spends time giving these children individual attention and help. It has been amazing to see the positive impact that this has had for many of our learners. Alcohol abuse and its associated issues are the primary societal
problems that affect the Winterberg and Tarkastad communities.

Though the Winterberg School Trust is first and foremost a school for children, we can’t separate ourselves from the environment in which we operate. To try to create greater transparency and engagement on the social issues in the community that are affecting our learners’ home lives, we have run a series of ‘Parent Days’, where a guest speaker talks on a relevant topic (such as substance abuse, violence and HIV/Aids). Parent attendance at these days has been good, and they’ve had the opportunity to ask questions and understand where they can get help and advice.

Breaking the cycle

The Parent Days have also helped us to increase parent engagement in the children’s education – and they aren’t all serious! We’ve had fun, too – for example, play workshops, where our teachers have played the kids’ games with the parents, so that parents can then take toys out from our toy
library and play at home with their children. The toy library operates in the same way as a book library.

Children are able to borrow educational toys, games and puzzles to take home and play with their families. This provides access to toys that the children wouldn’t otherwise have. The toy library offers a variety of different musical instruments, puzzles and games that develop fine motor skills. Some of the toys we’ve had for decades, and we’ve been lucky to have new and replacement items donated in more recent years, too.

Some pupils are the first generation within their families to be receiving a structured and quality education. The winner of last year’s reading prize is an example of this – her father did not have access to education; he is illiterate and unable to write his own name. Within one generation, the school has changed the prospects for members of families in the community. This is an incredible testimony, and evidence of how social upliftment is possible through education and a nurturing environment such
as that provided by Winterberg School.

Innovative funding ideas

As an independent school, each year we must raise the funds needed to run the school. The parents pay a small school fee; the demographics of the school’s families are such that they can’t afford more than this nominal contribution. Most of our funding comes from corporate donors, charitable trusts and private individuals, in addition to the support of local business.

As a community, we are doing all that we can to continue this project. Since the school’s start, the farming community has made significant contributions in time and finances to keep the school going. Most recently, the Winterberg Farmers’ Association has come up with a novel method of raising a sustainable income. Local farmers each donated a pregnant cow, to be managed as a herd to generate sustainable income for the school. Each year, we aim to sell 40 weaners (young calves) at auction, with the proceeds going directly to the school.

Finding new sources of funding is a constant challenge, and we continue to look for innovative ways to raise income. Last year, we set up a donations and subscription mechanism managed through PayPal on our website (see This has helped us to reach a broader donor base of individuals, particularly overseas, and provides a recognisable and trustworthy way for people to donate to the school across borders.

How to retain quality teachers

One of the challenges that the school faces is the limited pool of teachers available to work in the area. Despite the beauty of our district, such a remote and mountainous area is not everyone’s ideal place to live! There is a limited number of qualified teachers who live in the area, and most/all are employed either with us or at schools in Tarkastad. Our first hope is always to employ someone locally, but often when a position opens we have to advertise further afield. Finding teachers who feel at home in such an isolated environment can be a challenge, particularly if they don’t have family or personal ties to the area. However, once they get here, the warmth of the school and the energy of the children tends to keep them here, for which we are grateful. We couldn’t run the school without
the enthusiasm and commitment of our teaching staff, and the
ideas that they bring help the school to continue to evolve and grow.

Our focus doesn’t end with the Foundation Phase. We have continued to invest in supporting further education and helping young people find work. We provide financial support and bursaries to students with real promise, and help them to identify courses and work experience placements in local
industries such as hospitality. This has led to some fantastic successes, where students have gone on to run the kitchens in restaurants and hunting lodges in local towns such as Bedford and Port Elizabeth.

Extending support through to tertiary education

We support a small number of exceptional students into their
further education. For example, we have a current student at Rhodes University in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in his third year of a BComm degree. This student was identified as being an outstanding pupil at our school, even from preschool. The Winterberg School Trust approached St Andrew’s College for Boys in Makhanda, and through its outreach programme we were lucky to be able to send him there from Grade 8 through to matric. Our local community supported him throughout his school career with extra necessities such as trainers, a cellphone, tuck, toiletries, etc. St Andrew’s helped to bridge the gaps needed, and he matriculated and was accepted at Rhodes. He comes home each holiday and often visits the Winterberg School. He spoke at a recent prize-giving event and inspired the little ones, highlighting the importance of working hard
and doing your best. Our hope is that our ‘cradle to career’ approach to education will help us to continue identifying students with promise, and to support them to assist building brighter opportunities and futures for children and young people within our community.

A gem in a dusty district

Also situated on the school grounds is an adult skills development programme called ‘Luncedo’ (isiXhosa for ‘we help ourselves’), where 10 previously unemployed women, after training in sewing and crafts, have established a sustainable business that produces quality clothing and home décor in traditional Xhosa designs.

That our school buses drive over 700 km a day so that our students can receive a quality and reliable education in one of the most remote and mountainous parts of the Eastern Cape sets the Winterberg School apart as unique. It truly is a gem in this dusty district that borders the Karoo, with its ‘great heat, great frosts and great droughts.’

Last year, we expanded the school to include a Grade 5 class, and in 2020, we will offer Grade 6. Our goal is to continue to add grades year-on-year until we can provide education up to Grade 7. Our learning outcomes have demonstrated that our learners are outperforming their peers who attend the local schools in town, so we would like to keep our students with us
for longer and build on that. The performance that we are measuring is not only academic success, but also metrics on attendance and community engagement.

A true community school

Operating as an independent school is important to us, because it truly allows us to be a community school: educating those who are most in need, engaging parents in their children’s education, and providing learning and employment opportunities to others in the community. We provide an
environment that the children love to come to, and where we can ensure that we provide a high-quality education and learning experience. We joined ISASA so that we could be part of a community of independent schools, and not only benefit from the association of learning through other ‘independents’ but also to further enhance our credentials and share our
experiences. We recognise that we’ve got a lot that we can build on and improve, and know that we can’t do that in ‘splendid isolation’, so we are excited to be part of the ISASA community as we continue our journey.

Category: Summer 2019

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