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‘Producing human beings’ — EC principal inching towards a 100% pass rate, but it’s not his main goal

‘Producing human beings’ — EC principal inching towards a 100% pass rate, but it’s not his main goal
Mncedi Mtengwana, the principal of Solomon Mahlangu High School in KwaNobuhle, Kariega. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

In a poor area rife with social problems, a school’s pass rate has soared from 20% to 87%. But Mncedi Mtengwana’s main goal is to produce good human beings, and the emphasis is paying off.

Mncedi Mtengwana, the principal of Solomon Mahlangu High School in KwaNobuhle, Kariega, has had one milestone in mind for the past decade. It was not a 100% pass rate for his school’s matrics.

“I think we will get there in the next two years, but what I want is for this school to produce human beings that can change their community for the better, and for that we need them to study hard,” he said.

His school is in an area rife with crime, scheduled and unscheduled power cuts, vandalism, unemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse. In 1995, the school’s pass rate was about 20%.

But against all odds, with love, discipline and motivation, he has been inching his school forward since he took over the leadership 13 years ago.

A positive school culture is how we should measure the success of a school. I advocate for focus to be shifted from the outcome to the process.

This year his school achieved an 87.5% pass rate, and he is convinced that it will hit 100% in two years. Although that is the milestone, the real achievement, Mtengwana tells his pupils often, is that they must be the good human beings who will change a community fraught with problems.

Dr Bruce Damons, a specialist in community schools at Nelson Mandela University, said: “When we look at schools like this, they work and they are shining beacons not because of their results but because they produce great human beings.

“A positive school culture is how we should measure the success of a school. I advocate for focus to be shifted from the outcome to the process.”

Mtengwana’s school is so popular that some parents sell admission forms for R100 each. On admission day parents start lining up at the gates before 6am.

“I get annoyed,” said education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen, “when parents are blamed for trying their very best to send their children to the best school, whether it is out of their suburb or out of their province.

“Parents are not stupid. They know that a successful education is key to their child’s future and to the family getting out of ­poverty.”

It has been a tough few years for Mtengwana and he remains concerned about teaching time that was missed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I am expecting better results this year, but due to Covid-19 we have about 33 learners who were progressed, not promoted. We staged an intervention to make sure they have the best chance to pass.

“My approach is to set a target for the learners and then make sure that they know how they can reach it. If they don’t agree with our proposal we discuss how we can make it work.”

Mtengwana has set a matric pass rate of 95% for the class of 2025 and 100% for 2026.

The parents also look after our school. We never have cases of vandalism here, not even when the school is closed.

“This was not an easy journey,” he said. “Our school is in an area where many people are not literate. Unemployment is rife. Parents rely on the school as well.

“I tell the children all the time: This community must not be the same in a few years because of you. You can make a positive change.”

To improve food security, Mtengwana has offered school land to parents to create gardens, and the school buys vegetables from parents for its school nutrition programme.

“The parents also look after our school. We never have cases of vandalism here, not even when the school is closed.”

To improve teaching and boost school culture, Mtengwana had to make a plan – and it was a revolutionary one.

“I thought, what if the children wanted to do this, not us? What if we just helped them?”

He recruited a full-time social worker to join the staff to help pupils struggling with substance abuse and violence at home.

“We want nothing that makes it hard for the children to study,” he said.

“One year there was a problem with maths. We sat down with the learners and we asked them: How can we teach you better? We learnt a lot from that. In the fourth term, we implemented what they suggested and our results went up.

“We ask that teachers account for their results. I attend classes every day and make sure that the learners are taught well.

“I talk to the learners often to hear if they struggle with anything. You cannot have a plan without them. We tell them every day, you take responsibility for your results.

“Excellence is the school culture now.

“I have an open-door policy. We invite parents and teachers to come to share how they think we can improve.”

But he is also strict about maintaining discipline: “This is the foundation of everything.”

When I confiscate a phone I set a target for the learner to perform academically before they can get them back.

To motivate children to pass, the school relaxes the rules on hairstyles for Grade 12s. In lower grades, only natural hair is allowed.

“But when they reach Grade 12 they can do whatever they want,” Mtengwana said. “The children find that very motivating.”

Though the school sometimes uses phones for teaching, the general rule is that phones are not allowed.

“When I confiscate a phone I set a target for the learner to perform academically before they can get them back,” he said.

“Let me tell you the story of five boys. Good friends. They were all repeating their grade. I caught them with phones during recess and I took the phones. I told them they must pass to get their phones back.

“But by the fourth term they were still not doing well. I found them and I reminded them about the phones. The end of that year they passed their grade and even today they are still doing well.

“You have to be patient,” Mtengwana said. “We must never forget that we are working with human beings.”

Redefining ‘elite’

Damons said: “I think we must revisit what we define as an elite school. Success shouldn’t be measured by matric passes. It should be measured in building a strong school culture. Leadership like this is absolutely critical in a school and there are bodies of research to prove this.

“But also it is essential, especially in our socioeconomically marginalised communities, that a leader has a high degree of empathy with all stakeholders – teachers, learners, parents and the community.

“It is so important how we relate to one another and how we care for one another. The focus must be more on the process than the output…

“For me, a successful school is one of those where, when there is food left over from the nutrition programme, parents in need can come collect a plate of food.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Matric class of 2023 beats the odds with record 82.9% pass rate — Angie Motshekga

Read more in Daily Maverick: Experts welcome matric pass rate increase but note 450,000 learners dropped out

Jansen agreed. He said communities are needed to create truly successful schools.

“The secret to a good school is leadership that drives outcomes. It takes time, and where you have excellent schools the principal is often put under pressure to take more learners. People go where there is success.

“I think building relationships is so important and also a focus on advancing learning.

“Because, let’s be honest, it is brutal out there. Your heart breaks every day when you see teachers trying to survive every day on all kinds of medication.

“We must never stop. No kid is doing well until all kids are doing well.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • says:

    Dear Sir, as an old white privalaged educator, I very much admire your credo .. you are a true Hero in our troubled country. Much Respect.

  • Diana Clarke says:

    Wow. What a refreshing story.
    I salute you Mr Matengwana.
    You are an inspiration to us all with your patience, vision & dedication.
    If only we were surrounded by more people with your attitude. We would be the best place on earth to live here in SA.
    How very fortunate your local district & students are. We all learn by a simple concept of rewards & accountability…..goals too!
    Your deserve your moment to shine. And much much more!
    Be blessed

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Outstanding, Mr Matengwana.
    Next to love, a sense of pride is the best thing we can give our children.
    “In teaching me independence of thought, they had given me the greatest gift an adult can give to a child besides love, and they had given me that also.” ― Bryce Courtenay, quote from The Power of One

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