Opinionista Mike Wills 16 October 2018

South Africa’s most densely schooled zone needs… more schools

The lateral lessons from a rare success story in education.

The inner southern suburbs of Cape Town represent one of the most intensively schooled areas in the world.

In the compact 6km x 4km block bounded by the N2, the M5, the M9 and Table Mountain, there are, by my rough count, at least 40 primary and secondary schools, with two-thirds of them state-run.

The entire Cape Town Metropole of four million people has around 750 schools, which is about one per 9,000 people. This elite zone averages well below 1,000 local residents per school. And many of these schools have exceptional facilities and grounds — the commercial value of their sports fields alone in this “Location Location Location” (location) would make for an interesting estate agent’s sum.

Add the tertiary institutions of UCT and Damelin (plus the Claremont College of Magic!) into the mix, along with a plethora of preschools, and you realise that education is the main industry in this part of Cape Town. One by-product of this staggering cluster of students in a tight space is monumental parental traffic jams. Another happens to be exceptionally high quality educational outputs by any measure.

The top six high schools in the Western Cape in the 2017 NSC (Herschel, Rondebosch, Bishops, Westerford, Springfield and Rustenburg) are all in this zone, with Claremont High, Wynberg Girls and SACS also making it into the top 11. And among those not in the academic ultra elite are senior schools with strong reputations such as Wynberg Boys, Livingstone, Rhodes, Groote Schuur, Sans Souci, Thandokhulu and St Joseph’s Marist College. Most schools (senior and junior, state and private) in the area have long waiting lists and pent-up demand.

Those are the facts about this demonstrable node of educational excellence, but what are the lessons to be drawn?

The understandable cry would be one of inequality and distorted delivery. Undeniably, this is apartheid development in extremis. Even though the racial mix in most of the former Model C schools has changed markedly in the last two decades, in broad sweep terms this aggregation can still be seen to represent the super-serving of the prosperous, white, inner-city elite at the expense of the black masses who were, and still are, consigned by racially based spatial planning to the city’s outer reaches, without decent local schooling.

The obvious policy approach would be to re-allocate precious resources away from this privileged zone and into Khayelitsha, Athlone, Gugulethu, Mitchells Plain, Blue Downs and other under-serviced areas. That has to be considered. But there’s evidence and logic behind a counterintuitive approach which says that, actually, there aren’t enough schools in this inner southern suburbs zone and that we should create several more.

In an ideal world, schools are indeed spread out on a demographic algorithm to provide each with an optimal and convenient catchment area. And in that same ideal world, all schools deliver equal educational value at an equally cheap price (if not completely free). But, as I hope we have learnt by now, the ideal world, or indeed the ideological world, is not the context for effective educational planning. So much of what has been done in the name of improving schooling in SA since 1994 has been theoretically and morally sound yet catastrophic in its implications.

It’s time to deal in the real world and to think laterally, as the Western Cape Education Department did in 2011 when it created Claremont High within this elite zone, but catering for children from Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Manenberg, with a special focus on maths and science. It was established, effectively, as a sister school to the nearby, highly regarded Westerford, which shared its governing body, deployed a principal and some staff from its ranks, and offered resources and facilities. By 2017, Claremont High was standing alone and ranked 8th in the Western Cape’s NSC results with a 100% pass rate.

That extraordinary success story was achieved precisely because the school was in the cluster of the inner southern suburbs which made it close enough to share resources and facilities with Westerford. Very important is that it also made it a desirable and safe place to teach while giving it a form of instant status or caché for parents in underprivileged areas. And it made it an easier school to secure.

Transport is obviously a major issue for students coming from far and wide, but the area is serviced by one of Metrorail’s better performing lines (not that that’s saying much) and is directly fed by three prime taxi/bus corridors — Klipfontein Road, Imam Haron Road and Claremont/Wynberg Main Road. It’s also far easier for a school governing body to work on transport issues with bespoke planning and investment than it is to tackle vast, broader community issues that could impact on a new school placed elsewhere.

There are other similar stories to tell in this context, such as the arrangement between Bishops and Langa’s LEAP School which uses the exclusive private school’s facilities in down time and has delivered good results since the partnership began in 2004.

And, crowded though it is, there’s still room in Cape Town’s inner southern suburbs for much more of this. One example is the sprawling Wynberg Military Base — a sheltered workshop for idle soldiers with no apparent purpose, which could be put to far better use as excellent grounds for at least two schools which could work with the neighbouring Springfield, Wynberg or Simon van der Stel schools.

And thinking of under-used sprawling spaces, Kenilworth Racecourse could provide classrooms during the week (with the mentoring of Cedar House and Rondebosch schools) and still be a den of gambling iniquity at weekends.

There’s no getting away from criticism that this approach — taking pupils to the schools rather than schools to the pupils — perpetuates the apartheid spatial divide in significant ways. It also represents self-justification on my part for the highly privileged schooling my children received in this area. And it is not a big scale solution or anything close to it — schools still should primarily be located in the neighbourhoods they serve.

But, equally, there’s no getting away from the fact that the parents and the students at Claremont High have voted in resounding favour of this approach with their feet (and their exam marks).

This is an educational experiment that palpably has worked and we have precious few of those to shout about. DM

Mike Wills is a Cape Town journalist, radio talk show host and PR strategist.

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