normal week day at LM Malgas Secondary School is underway, and a Maths teacher is sobbing. Her pupils have decided they’re not interested in learning today; they didn’t do yesterday’s homework and they’ve walked out of today’s lesson. The teacher has been crying for almost 20 minutes, fruitlessly begging the pupils to return. She’s called colleagues in to help, and the principal, too. After a tense stand-off, the pupils agree to come back to class. But it’s a wasted lesson – one of several I witness during a week at the school.
LM Malgas is in Ramra village, on the outskirts of Willowvale in the Eastern Cape. The school has no electricity and relies on a water tank – if it runs empty, the school doesn’t have water until the next time it rains. And like so many of its counterparts elsewhere in the province and beyond, the ablution facilities are in a poor state. There’s one small, relatively new block with two proper pit toilets, and an old dilapidated block of pit toilets – literally just holes in the ground, with no doors for privacy.
This is a school that wears its financial struggles and a history of recent violence visibly. Fights that start over pots of traditional beer have sometimes spilled over into the school grounds, particularly during the province’s annual initiation season in June. A former principal banned pupils from carrying dangerous weapons like pangas, sticks and knives into the school; in response, a few learners wrecked huge swathes of the property.
Manelisi Mtshizana, who took over as principal in August 2017, sighs. The protests against his predecessor’s ruling eventually ended, but hostility lingered. The damage done during the protests to a room that was being used as the library remains untouched – teachers now use it as a staff room, marking papers or preparing lessons surrounded by messy piles of books.
Mtshizana identifies a library as being among the school’s greatest needs – so why hasn’t anything been done? He pauses. “We need a library assistant. We need someone who is trained to run the library.” That, he insists, is up to the Department of Basic Education to provide.
And what about the broken windows, peeling paint and general disrepair? Can any of that be dealt with by the community, for instance? “The community says it can’t help with money – and we can’t afford to pay people if they do work on the school.”
That’s not to say LM Malgas’s staff aren’t trying to brighten their environment. There’s a small, neat garden where the vegetables used for the school nutrition programme grow. The grass that surrounds the buildings is kept trim, though both it and the vegetable garden are very dry, because there’s so little rain in the area. There is a space that could be used for sport, but it has become a communal grazing space for residents’ cattle.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The teachers at LM Malgas Senior Secondary School are overworked, but they are putting in a lot of effort to turn the school around; guest teachers are reluctant to teach at the school because of its remoteness; the fairly new school principal, Manelisi Mtshizana is desperately looking for ways to improve the situation; schooling takes place among constant reminders of disrepair.
It’s August when I arrive at LM Malgas for a week-long visit; my day begins at the flat of Nyanisa Ntshinka – a 45-year-old Life Sciences and Life Orientation teacher from the school, who is hosting me for the week. We wake up at 6am like she does every day; Umhlobo Wenene’s breakfast show provides the background noise, while she boils the first of three kettles: one for coffee, and two for a bath. Ntshinka is usually alone in the flat – her three children (14, 13 and four years old) all live with relatives at the family home in Mthatha. She commutes the 114km back home each Friday afternoon, and back again on Sundays.
Bathed and dressed, with her bags, papers and a Tupperware of cereal, Ntshinka climbs into a colleague’s car. They’re among the lucky ones who’ve managed to rent apartments close to Ramra village, and so – despite the state of the road – their commute isn’t much longer than 10 minutes. The school’s 120-odd pupils can travel up to 10 kilometres on a gravel road to reach LM Malgas, depending on which of the 10 surrounding villages they’re coming from.
Pupils are streaming in when Ntshinka and her colleague arrive. They gather outside, waiting for assembly to start at 7.50am. Teachers are charged with motivating the pupils during this eight-minute gathering, preparing them for the day that lies ahead. Attendance is good early on in the week; by Friday many pupils are absent.
But attendance doesn’t mean learning. Many pupils seem reluctant to be at school; some comment that they’re only there to please their parents, or to have something to do. When teachers are called to meetings during class time, pupils don’t keep working – they wander outside, searching for shady spots in which they can chat or snooze. One day, I asked a few scattered groups from various grades why they weren’t in class. They shrugged. “There’s no teacher in class. Why should we be?”
Principal Mtshizana insists that his staff – though overworked and overburdened – are doing the best they can. When Mtshizana joined LM Malgas in August 2017, the school had only had temporary principals for years, and it showed.
He describes the code of conduct as nothing more than words. Nobody enforced it, and nobody paid attention to it. Mtshizana says he’s since put his foot down – teachers are now at school on time and in class when they should be (although, yes, he concedes, they are sometimes called to urgent meetings during class time).
“Slowly the pupils are also getting in tune with being pupils, and their behaviour towards learning is changing,” he says. “They were used to not having a teacher in class. We’re changing that. Pupils used to bring dagga to school and smoke it in the toilets. Now we’re enforcing a culture of learning.” In another conversation, though, he worries that his pupils have “no hope”. He says: “They don’t see the point of bettering themselves. They want shortcuts.”
Perhaps the gap between what you see as a visitor and what Mtshizana and his staff believe they are achieving is an indication of how bad things used to be at LM Malgas.
Ntshinka is one of the teachers brought in to try and turn the school’s fortunes around. A lifelong educator and the child of two school principals, she left the profession after 14 years to concentrate on her hostel business. But she couldn’t ignore LM Malgas when it came calling in early 2018. It was in a slump; for the past three years it had registered a less than 40% pass rate.
Ntshinka isn’t a full-time member of staff. Rather, she’s employed as part of the Provincial Department of Education’s Learner Attainment Improvement Strategy. This is designed to improve learners’ marks, especially those who are in higher grades or already in matric. It’s a noble idea, but there’s a very serious drawback: at the time of writing this, she’d only received a single month’s salary for five months’ work.
The pit toilet block at LM Malgas is in disrepair with no doors for privacy.
On top of the financial strain, Ntshinka has also been tasked with teaching a subject in which she has no prior experience. She ought to have been hired as a Science teacher: she graduated from the then University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University) with a Bachelor of Science in Education in 2000, and previously taught Physical Science. But the school also needed someone to teach Life Orientation, so she’s taken that on too, and is learning on the job. She now teaches Life Orientation to the school’s Grade 8 and 9 learners, and Life Sciences to Grades 10, 11 and 12. Each lesson lasts for 55 minutes. It makes for gruelling days: sometimes she’ll teach from 8am until the end of the day, with only a lunch break.
The lessons after lunch are the hardest, because they’re often delayed – learners line up outside for meals from the school nutrition programme, which is coordinated by the provincial government. They serve rice, vegetables and fish on Mondays and Fridays; amasi (fermented milk) on Tuesdays; pap, vegetables and red meat on Wednesdays; rice, vegetables and chicken on Thursdays. It takes more than 30 minutes to serve all 119 pupils.
Despite the delay this causes in getting learners back into class, the teachers are pleased that the feeding scheme is available. For some learners, it’s their only full meal of the day.
Back in class, Ntshinka’s routine is always the same. The last 15 minutes of each lesson are dedicated to asking learners questions about the previous 40-minutes’ learning. She moves frequently between English and isiXhosa, a practice known as code-switching to help pupils grapple with new concepts in their home language. She also tries to keep the lessons interesting and relevant to the pupils’ everyday lives: in a Life Orientation class, for instance, she’ll explain why keeping fit is important for longevity.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. The pupils are capable of reading aloud if she asks them to, but don’t participate much otherwise. Once, almost an entire Grade 10 class arrived without their textbooks; others had only blank pages where there should have been class notes.
She’d like to show them more images and videos to illustrate what she’s talking about, but there is only one computer at LM Malgas, and that’s mainly used for printing. Teachers occasionally use their cellphones as teaching aids, battling slow connections and limited data so they can find examples to engage their pupils.
“Our teachers are overworked,” concedes Mtshizana. “Sometimes the Department of Education helps here and there by providing temporary teachers, but we need more.” He himself teaches amid his other responsibilities, and finds it incredibly difficult to manage his load. “I’m robbing these kids. I can’t give them enough time.”
But, at a school where there is no-one to teach the learners Maths (they need to get Maths teachers in from neighbouring schools and it’s often a struggle), a lack of staff and resources are just some of the many issues impacting the school and its learners. Mtshizana believes that awareness campaigns about education are crucial to creating strong relationships between schools and communities.
He’s quick to add, though, that learners’ parents have been supportive of the school’s turnaround efforts. They scrape together what money they can to pay for sleepover study camps at LM Malgas, and now escort their children to night classes. For the most part, unfortunately, that support doesn’t extend to attending school meetings or doing homework with their children.
Drugs and alcohol are a problem, too. There are 11 known drug users among the pupils at LM Malgas. Some also engage in risky sexual behaviour; two girls were pregnant at the time of my visit.
The Department of Education has deployed a Learner Support Agent to the school. Her role is to provide counselling to the learners; she offers one-on-one sessions where they can discuss their worries and problems.
Don’t think this school has nothing going for it, however. The teachers’ efforts organising group studies, where pupils play off each other’s strengths and learn from their collective mistakes, are slowly starting to pay off.
“The June exams saw an improvement especially in the core subjects like Maths and Physical Science,” Ntshinka says.
Mtshizana is cautiously pleased about the results: “We are pulling through despite the conditions. In June, more than 70% of our pupils passed.”
But are the pupils of LM Malgas motivated enough to carry this performance through into the year’s final exams and beyond, to future grades? Ntshinka’s not sure. There are some bright spots: Cwenga Mtila, who’s in Grade 12, has banded together with some classmates to create study groups; they gather at break times and pore over their books and notes. They’ve gathered old question papers from their teachers so they can practice the work. And, in every class I attended at the school, there were always a few pupils who asked questions and engaged with the work.
By the end of my week at LM Malgas I was left wondering what, really, is keeping LM Malgas stuck? Are teachers to blame? Or pupils who don’t want to learn, and who sometimes choose knives over pens? Is it an Education Department that, Ntshinka suggests, “doesn’t care much”? Or communities wrapped up in their own daily struggles? To an outsider, it appears the school is in the eye of a storm created by all those circumstances. Mtshizana believes more staff, proper resources like computer and science laboratories, and better infrastructure will do the trick.