chools are usually dark, quiet places after hours. But at Gwebityala Senior Secondary School in Elliotdale’s Khotyana village, lights flicker late into the night. That’s because most pupils don’t go home straight after class: every week night, they gather together by candlelight (a generator occasionally supplies electricity, but it’s temperamental and often doesn’t work) for study groups. For an hour, they read silently; the second hour is dedicated to working together, thrashing out problems and learning from each other.
It’s a reality that makes principal Nohlobo Mjali-Matyholo simultaneously sad and proud. The candlelit sessions are just further evidence of her pupils’ dedication to their studies – and the desperately poor conditions in which they’re trying to learn.
Mjali-Matyholo has been at the school for 14 years. She started as a Biology teacher (teaching what is today known as Life Sciences) and four years ago she was appointed principal. Every weekday morning she wakes at 4.50am to make the two-hour drive from her home in Mthatha to work – a time she uses to think about the nine learners who’ve dropped out of school since the start of the year (not bad for a school of 682 learners, but a group she fears might succumb to trouble without school to keep them focused); and reflects on the numbers that weigh on any South African principal’s mind: her school’s pass rate and what it signifies about the work her school is doing to prepare its learners.
There’s a lot for her to be optimistic about. Reaching out beyond Gwebityala’s gates and into the wider community has borne fruit. At the end of 2014, her first year in charge, 45.6% of the school’s matrics passed – an improvement, the first in years, and one that offered a glimmer of hope. It has been a steady upward climb since then: 56.5% by the end of 2016, and almost 70% for 2017. There was great excitement following the June 2018 exams when only two learners failed out of a class of 177 matrics. So, are they aiming for a 100% pass rate at the end of this year? No, they’re trying to be realistic: 80% is the goal.
Mjali-Matyholo doesn’t believe one single factor has led to this slow but steady turnaround in results – she thinks it’s partly thanks to committed teachers. Also, the pupils are hungry to succeed, as evidenced by those late-night candlelit sessions. The Eastern Cape Department of Education has been a valuable ally. The community around Gwebityala has also embraced the increasingly popular school, rallying around to support its quest for improvement.
A few years ago, the school was in the doldrums. It was the only senior school serving Khotyana and surrounding villages, and its pass rates were dismally low. “In 2014 we asked parents to allow extra classes on Saturdays and for other schools in the area to provide some teachers for the winter and spring camps,” Mjali-Matyholo says. Since then, teachers from neighbouring schools have stepped in regularly to help with extra classes in subjects that Gwebityala usually struggles with. Parents have also become involved: they watch over the learners during study camps; one couple spends every day at the school to provide extra support and adult supervision. The School Governing Body is active and engaged.
So why are people this willing to pitch in and support the school? Mjali-Matyholo believes it is because most of the adults in Khotyana are unemployed. Many locals didn’t complete matric, which drives a passionate belief in the value of education – one which can be seen at every level, from the cleaners who maintain the school to the teachers, pupils and principal herself. Teachers aren’t shy about asking each other for help; there’s no sense of embarrassment about asking questions or learning from their colleagues. And when teachers aren’t around, pupils keep working: it’s common to see groups huddled together around books.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Gwebityala Senior Secondary School is hoping to improve their matric pass rate from 69% in 2017 to 80% in 2018; meals for the school nutrition programme being prepared outside; while some classes are in a good condition, there are still infrastructure improvements needed; principal Nohlobo Mjali-Matyholo in the office she shares with the deputy-principal.
That’s because teachers in South Africa aren’t just teachers; sometimes they have to act as stand-in social workers, too. History teacher Nombuzo Sityodana explains: “We’ve had instances of girl learners confiding in us about the abuse they were experiencing.” The teachers initially tried to help, but found themselves threatened by angry relatives who scolded them for getting involved in “family matters”. So, she continues, “We had to ask for social workers to intervene”.
On occasion, the Department of Education sends in a Learner Support Agent who is trained to talk to young people about their non-academic issues. The agent then reports back to Mjali-Matyholo and her staff so they know who to keep an eye on. The teachers also try to make themselves available for pupils who want to talk about the issues they’re facing at home or in school – although they admit that very few pupils are comfortable confiding in their teachers.
Mahobe Sukiswa, a Grade 12 pupil at the school, exemplifies many of the common issues facing Gwebityala’s student body. She shares a home near the school with her mother, father and five siblings. Both parents are unemployed, and the family – like so many others in the area – survives on child grants. She takes her school work seriously, unlike one of her siblings, who refused to attend school beyond Grade 5.
But Mahobe, the eldest child, has to juggle many responsibilities beyond school: she’s the one who gets up first each morning, lighting a fire to boil water and helping her siblings prepare for school. If there are leftovers from the previous evening’s meal, these become breakfast; without leftovers, she does without food. When she gets home from the day’s lessons, at around 3pm, she washes her own and her younger siblings’ uniforms for the next day, prepares supper and does chores. She must also, of course, find time to do her homework.
Mjali-Matyholo, too, has many hats to wear in a single day. In her office, the phone on her desk rings constantly; the school’s only printer and photocopier add to the clutter. If it’s not a phone call, it’s someone sticking their head through the door to report a problem or ask a question. The generator has run out of petrol, again. One of the school cooks wants to know if there are any bags of rice stashed away for that day’s lunch. “I’m being interviewed here!” she laughs; then relents, and explains where both the rice and soup packs can be found.
The school’s feeding scheme is run from a kitchen to the left of the main assembly point. Food is carried back and forth between the kitchen and a huge outdoor fireplace where cooks prepare lunch in traditional pots. Chicken or canned pilchards provide the protein; meals are served with rice, samp and pap. In hot weather, learners are occasionally served uphuthu (maize-meal porridge) and sour milk. For many, it’s the only meal they can be certain of each day.
After a brief morning assembly each morning, learners head off to whichever of the ten prefabricated buildings their first lesson is in – there are no permanent brick-and-mortar classrooms at Gwebityala. Mjali-Matyholo runs a quick staff meeting, and then the teachers head off to their classrooms. Some of them are in such poor shape that even the snakes – which are a fairly common sight around Khotyana village – avoid them. Some classes are held outside.
“We have this competition at school where we award the best performing teachers and have in-house awards for our Grade 12 teachers. Last year I won the best teacher in my subject. I have a healthy competition going with the Life Sciences teacher who says she can’t be outdone by me while I’m so busy,” she laughs.
“We have ‘best performer’ tags for our top learners to wear, as well as a special prize-giving ceremony at the end of the year, with a tie ceremony for matrics,” Mjali-Matyholo adds. “Teachers wear full academic regalia at all school ceremonies and traditional leaders and parents are invited to give motivational speeches. Career expos are a regular feature, too.”
There have been some physical improvements to the school. The community pitched in to raise money for an administration block about five years ago. The bathrooms, built by the Department of Education, are also new and in good condition.
Unfortunately for the school’s sportier learners, there are no sports facilities like soccer grounds or netball poles. In this area, soccer is extremely popular: after-school and weekend games are a common sight in the surrounding villages. The school fields a team but, out of necessity, it only plays away games.
Acknowledging hard work and good performance is a key strategy keeping learners and teachers motivated at Gwebityala Senior Secondary School.
Classrooms would really help the school to ease its overcrowding. A science laboratory, computer lab and a library would also be welcome additions – all of these, the principal says, would create more space for learning. And if promises were buildings, Gwebityala would be in great shape. For the past five years, Mjali-Matyholo explains, the Eastern Cape government has sworn that proper construction will begin… “soon”. The latest they’ve heard is that the project will be put out to tender for a contractor… also “soon”.
She’s quick to add that although the provincial government hasn’t delivered on its infrastructure promises, the Eastern Cape Education Department is a good source of support. Subject advisers and Educational Development Officers visit frequently, and the teaching staff has grown – thanks to the Department supporting demands for additional posts – as more and more learners have flocked to Gwebityala over the past five years.
Mjali-Matyholo beams as she recounts some of Gwebityala’s success stories. “Some of my former students are studying medicine at Walter Sisulu University. That brings joy to my soul as this is a poor community where most survive on social grants.”
One of the things that’s driven these achievements is a strong sense of discipline. Teacher and pupil attendance is consistently high. If pupils are late for morning assembly, they face detention or are made to sweep classrooms after school. Mjali-Matyholo says punctuality is good, and that learners “don’t have to be continually watched to do their school work.”
This discipline appears to have extended to other areas of school life, too. There’s no reported drug use at the school, and there have been no pregnancies this year. But, like any space full of teenagers, it’s not without its problems. Pupils are responsible for keeping the classrooms tidy. They often bunk that duty. Salespeople visit fairly often; their wares include shoes and hair pieces.
Still, the school seems to do a great deal with very little, in circumstances that are echoed around South Africa, and which often produce poor results. I ask Mjali-Matyholo, who is currently doing a Master’s degree at Walter Sisulu University, what is the value of education?
“It’s about empowerment. It helps pupils to gain real skills that directly apply to the world outside. That’s what they come to school for. As teachers, it’s our job to harness their skills.”
And are they getting it right? She is emphatic: “We are fulfilling that purpose with the little that we have.”
The candles burning late into the night at Gwebityala suggest she’s right.