After an overnight stay in Vrede, a town in the Free State province of South Africa, we head off to the province of Mpumanlanga. We are quite surprised by the cold 4-degree-Celsius temperature in the morning. The air is filled with fog and mist as we embark onto our vehicles, set out for an hour and a half long drive to Ermelo. The trip takes us through a sparsely populated countryside which resembles the English moors.
The drive towards Umfudlana school changes as we shift from driving on a tar road to a gravel road with plenty of dust to follow. Upon our arrival at the school, we are greeted by several school teachers, as well as officials from the Department of Education. This school is fairly new, having opened in 2009, and consists of six buildings that are set on a large field, with no neighbouring houses or buildings, a contrast to yesterday’s township schools.
Umfudlana is a combined school, which means that students range from 5-18 years, with many of the children coming from families working for the farmers around. Some farmers refuse to let anyone cross their fields, which means the children sometimes need to walk up to three kilometres around big fields to get to their bus stop. With road safety being poor, it can be a dangerous walk. In South Africa, school transport is provided if the learner lives more than 10 km away. At Umfudlana, several large school buses are parked up in the school yard; they are used for collecting the students who live up to 20 km away.
The school currently has 447 students with 15 teachers. As we digest this information, we start to calculate; this means a teacher to student ratio of 30 to 1, and anyone who has attended any school knows it is not easy keeping 30 children focused, especially if their ages range from 8 to 14. The teachers explain how they have adapted to working with these group sizes; the classes are shared, so a typical classroom may have several grades studying in them at the same time. This is known as multi-grade teaching. The lack of educated teachers contributes to this issue. The school also has a classroom with 23 computers; however, due to the lack of a computer science teacher, they have still not been able to install or use them.
South Africa has 400,000 teachers; however, most of them had their education during the Apartheid regime (before 1994), which means they received a low competence level and a very different approach to education from the younger teachers educated during the democracy. The newer-educated teachers tend to go into the private sector, the curriculum of which is considered one of the best in the world. UNICEF is currently working with the government on a huge project aiming to re-educate about 180,000 teachers to ensure an improved level of education. This has been made possible partly thanks to IKEA’s Soft Toys for Education campaign contributions.
In addition, the IKEA Foundation also contributed towards the implementation of the safe and caring child-friendly school initiative. The aim of project is to address barriers to teaching and learning. This project has been rolled out to 151 schools in Mpumalanga Province, and the intention is that once the project has been successfully tested in these schools the Mpumalanga Education Department will then roll it out to the remaining schools in the province. A safe and caring child-friendly school regards education as every child’s right and helps ensure the rights and wellbeing of every child in the community. A child-friendly school acts in the interests of the “whole” child, which includes his or her health, nutrition and overall wellbeing. It is also concerned with what happens to the child at home and within the community before he or she enters school and once his or her school career is completed.
During our visit to one of the multi-grade classrooms, we discover a class with more than 50 learners. When we walk in they are studying social sciences, which is similar to Personal, Social and Health Education in the UK, a very important part of the curriculum. The energy in the room is uplifting, and the students engage us in a talk about their dreams for the future—the class is full of aspiring soccer players, along with doctors and engineers! Talking with the students, we found they have big appetites for learning and chasing their dreams. An 11-year-old learner, Ngkwabi, who impresses us with her mathematical skills, tells us, “I want to become a teacher so I can inspire other children. I want to be like my teacher.” It is apparent that, no matter what corner of the world you are in, we all share commonalities, one being the magic of education that can give us a vision and a platform to be our best.
We then visit the early childhood Ddvelopment class, also referred to as the Grade R class (‘R’ for Reception). The young children, age 5 and 6, sit at their tables, colouring in. They are all working with Department of Basic Education workbooks.
The classroom is colourful and filled with the children’s creative activities, whether it’s learning the alphabet, the days of the week, counting or drawing. The teacher calls a little boy to the blackboard and asks him to write out numbers on the board. Bonginkosi, a 6-year-old learner, starts to write and illustrates how his numeric skills have been well developed thanks to the Early Childhood Development programme, which is another programme UNICEF helps the South African government support.
Then it’s time for the children to be physically active, and we all go outside in the nice weather. They start several nursery games, which are very similar to what we find at home. The IKEA team didn’t take long to jump in, playing tag. Even though we don’t speak their language, Zulu, play is play! We all had loads of fun and some healthy competition.
The teachers tell us that, although they are faced with several challenges, the aim of their school is to provide a safe place for learners, where students are encouraged to reach their potential and are provided with a daily nutritious meal, which is for some of them the only meal of the day. We say our goodbyes and thanks to the children and educators. They have given us lots of motivation to tell their stories and lift our energies in fundraising for our Soft Toys for Education campaign, which will soon again be in our stores.