Reaching new horizons
When is it appropriate to close a school? Forget for a moment the childish, opportunistic politics of rival parties in the Western Cape.
You close a school when the number of pupils is very small and you cannot justify the overall costs of keeping it open.
You shut down a school when a number of under-enrolled schools exist in the same area; combining pupils in one full school makes more financial sense.
But there is another, more controversial reason to close a school: when it experiences chronic failure and no interventions can turn around its outcomes.
Based on visits to thousands of schools over the years, I wish to venture that about 15% to 20% of our public schools are so deeply dysfunctional that nothing can be done to rescue the children damned for a lifetime by sitting inside those cold, uncaring buildings (if these exist) where teaching and learning were supposed to take place.
As my car went slipping and sliding dangerously through the snow on the icy roads of the eastern Free State last week, I called ahead to suggest to the principal that he close the high school where I was scheduled to speak to a huge hall filled with pupils. He was were reluctant to do so because New Horizon College had planned this event for months and, as I was to find out, they had invited several other high schools from the Harrismith area. So they sent home by bus only those children from rural Qwaqwa, fearing that the roads towards the Maluti mountains would probably be closed by the time the event was done.
I am glad they did not close the whole school because what I was about to witness bears powerful testimony to what can happen when thousands of children from failing public schools are transferred to an independent community school.
At New Horizon College nobody fails Grade 12. For five years in a row they have obtained 100% passes. This all-black school remains among the top schools in the province and places pupils among the top performers in the region.
After five minutes on the property, you know why. The discipline is firm; every poor child is immaculately dressed in uniform.
The rich extra-curricular programme takes pupils to entrepreneurial competitions in New York and to national science and mathematics competitions.
The quality of drama and singing is among the best I have seen in privileged schools. The language skills and sophistication of the pupils is of a standard I've seldom seen at the best universities. And the motivational levels of the pupils are simply awe-inspiring.
Same children, different school environment.
A high quality private school for township children was the brainchild of the ageing Vernon Botha, a man who clocked years of service in the education of the disadvantaged. Why could he and his team succeed where the regular government schools did not?
To start, they choose their own teachers, a diverse team of professionals led by a caring, competent and conscientious principal.
The capacity to hire highly competent and motivated teachers is lost on ordinary public schools where race, ethnicity, political party affiliation and family connections are among the factors that get the wrong teachers appointed. And then the most innovative of schemes anywhere: "All parents automatically become part of the school governing body upon enrolling their child."
What a brilliant idea to ensure parental involvement, and accountability, in the life of the school.
I watched the children from the surrounding public schools also gathered in the school hall of New Horizon College. They looked sad and downcast. Their uniforms were not the same. Their responses to the interactive session lacked energy and enthusiasm. My heart breaks. These are the same children, only in different schools.
It is time to consider closing more government schools and, gulp, turning them over to the independent sector.
We can respond ideologically to this proposal, and I can give my usual speech about the merits of public education from which my own children also benefited.
But they went to good public schools; the majority of our children do not. All I know is year after year we fail tens of thousands of pupils in the vain hope that teachers will take them seriously, that learning materials will arrive on time, and that test scores begin to reflect the real potential of our children.