Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 10 August 2008
Though only three hours from Johannesburg, the Waterberg range in Limpopo is remote, sparsely populated and quite beautiful with its rugged mountains, watercourses and wildlife. It is also very poor.
In the heart of the Waterberg lies the town of Vaalwater/Mabatlane, an unsightly collection of buildings with a four-way stop sign at its centre. With the population of the town and surrounding area estimated at nearly 50 000, mostly in the sprawling community of Leseding, common wisdom suggests that such impoverished, rural, farming communities don't provide students with much of an education. Vaalwater's Meetsetshehla Secondary School proudly defies that notion.
It is easy to view South Africa's education system with alarm. The problems include poor facilities, inadequate supplies, too few classrooms, incompetent teachers, poorly prepared and motivated students, and inappropriate curriculum. In addition, politics and the ubiquitous national pastime of blaming so many ills on race contribute to education failure.
English-medium Meetsetshehla Secondary School was established in 1986 by a local farmer/doctor to serve the children of his employees.
Since then, it has grown from the original few students and ill-equipped classrooms to a current enrolment of nearly 700 students on a lively six-hectare campus of several fully equipped buildings and sports fields.
The school has also grown from a prolonged, uneasy relationship with the national and provincial education authorities to a state-aided, independent establishment with 23 dedicated teachers providing a high standard of education to a very disadvantaged student body.
Yes, its student body is predominantly black, but it continues to be a multiracial school, as it always has been.
When critics suggest schools don't provide an atmosphere for learning, they haven't been to Meetsetshehla. Take a walk around the campus and be happily surprised - first by its orderliness and cleanliness, and then by the smartly uniformed and polite students. Well-maintained buildings and lawns, neat signboards, no litter. Attentive and lively classes led by inspired teachers. At a school like Meetsetshehla, one can become hopeful about the future of South Africa.
When critics look at the sad national matric pass rate in 2007 of 61,5 percent, and the sadder Limpopo matric pass rate of 58 percent, they haven't looked at Meetsetshehla. Its matric pass rates have reached a remarkably high level. In 2007, its pass rate was 98,6 percent, and it has not been below 97 percent since 1998, reaching 100 percent on four occasions.
The introduction of vocationally directed education together with an academic field of study makes Meetsetshehla's curriculum relevant to employment possibilities in the Waterberg, and indeed in the country. Course offerings reflect a choice of academic and commercial fields of study (life sciences, mathematics, physical science, accounting) or a career-based field of study (hospitality studies, computer applied technology, travel and tourism, business studies, mechanical technology).
Junior students take courses in computer literacy as well as formal learning areas such as human and social sciences, economics and management sciences and technology.
Northern Sotho, Afrikaans and English are taught as first or second languages.
Since its establishment in 1997, the Northern Education Trust has raised more than R5 million in donations for Meetsetshehla - land and funds from local lodges, corporates, local and international foundations, and individuals. The funds have been used to finance the construction of new buildings, the upgrading of existing buildings, equipment for a variety of speciality classes and bursaries for matric students entering tertiary education institutions or universities.
Barend Pretorius, Meetsetshehla's principal, recognises that the school is not immune from the country's education woes. Although proud of the students' accomplishments, he knows the still enormous challenges in several spheres.
Pretorius is troubled by the minimal attention that parents pay to their children's education. "We must find ways to encourage the participation of parents and guardians in the school's life. So many of them have little time to be involved, and even if they are inclined to join us, transportation from home to school is difficult."
Unwed student pregnancy is another problem. Eleven pregnant girls dropped out of school last year.
The Waterberg's primary schools inadequately prepare incoming students for secondary school work. This is Meetsetshehla's "bridging" problem. Pretorius notes that "many of the children are unable to proceed with the education offered because of a poor standard of English, Afrikaans and mathematics."
He regards this as his most important challenge, as "these learners do not make up the backlog in the first three or four years of schooling at the secondary school and they carry this handicap with them through their school career and probably will do so throughout life."
This year, Meetsetshehla has started special after-hours classes in English and mathematics for incoming students.
When Naledi Pandor, the education minister, believes that the race of a teacher is more important than the quality of the teaching, she has not been to Meetsetshehla.
Meetsetshehla is a disciplined school, with a seriousness of purpose reflected in its teachers. Pandor wonders what it means "… if I don't see someone who looks like me at the school I attend?" It means she's shockingly unaware of what education is, and sadly out of touch with schools such as Meetsetshehla. Meetsetshehla's faculty of 12 blacks and 12 whites are professional educators - not racial stereotypes.
Many graduates cannot find jobs in the area; many cannot afford to go to tertiary institutions or universities. But, many have and are held up as exemplary role models, often returning to the school to speak to classes. Meetsetshehla has produced at least two practising medical doctors, at least two lawyers and several engineers. Many recent Meetsetshehla graduates are now studying electrical engineering, accounting, law, medicine and information technology at the University of Limpopo, Tshwane University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology and Attridgeville Technical College, among others. And there are more grade 12 students studying right now, finding role models among their teachers.
Waterberg School Sets An Example: Meetsetshehla Secondary School defies the norm in its efforts to maintain excellence
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 10 August 2008