Chaos in the classroom

Our second week of school is nearly over, and I have a whole new level of sympathy for teachers. These teachers, certainly.

I’ve got the library almost sorted – there’s not a huge amount more I can do without some help with the Afrikaans books – I’ve been helping out in Grade 2.

School is compulsory from ages 7-15, or grades 1-9. The kids in Grade 2 should be around 8 years old, but some of them are as old as 11. The student-teacher ratio is max 39:1 – but in Grade 2, there are 48 kids (there were 49 at the start of the year).

As I mentioned in my last post, the school is in a largely ‘coloured’ area, where the first language of the kids is often Afrikaans, or a mixture of Afrikaans and English. However the school nearly closed down a few years ago due to low enrollment – in order to keep the school open, they expanded their catchment area and accepted students from many different areas of Cape Town. As a result, they now have more students from the impoverished areas of the city. In these (usually black) communities, isiXhosa is a more common first language – which is not and cannot be taught in the school as none of the teachers speak it. There is also a significant number of students from outside South Africa, who speak another first language altogether. This means not only can these children not be taught in their first language, but many of them will leave school unable to read or write in their first language either.

South Africa is a country with a diverse linguistic base – 11 national languages was always going to be problematic in school settings. Each school teaches in a ‘Home Language’ – English, in this case – and teaches a ‘First Additional Language’ – Afrikaans – and sometimes a ‘Second Additional Language’ in the later years. A relatively small proportion of the children speak English as their ‘Home Language’, but it is seen as more desirable than Afrikaans as a primary language in modern South Africa. Although understandable, this makes studying even more difficult for students whose home language is neither English nor Afrikaans – the day can be very confusing.

So in Grade 2, over half the class does not have English or Afrikaans as a first language. There are children with physical difficulties – one child has evident speech and hearing difficulties (yet to be formally diagnosed).  There are children from foster homes, from group care homes, those with serious behavioural problems and some clear learning disabilities. On a day to day basis, these children have no support. There is a support teacher, the lovely Jill, who comes in two days a week and takes five or so kids at a time and does small group work with them. But she has to support the entire school, and her time and resources are limited. There are some local volunteers who will come in and help some children with their reading – again, time and resource limited. Also the children are taken out of class to receive this help, so are again at risk of falling behind.

Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. It’s actually the goal that’s closest to being achieved – globally, primary school enrollment had reached 90% in 2008. But this week I have understood how access to schooling does not lead to an education. The children come to the system at a disadvantage, and there is neither the time nor the resources to help them. Teachers are doing what they can, but with so many pupils with so many diverse issues, they cannot help but focus on those who are able and willing to learn, leaving many of the rest to flounder.

Still, tomorrow is Friday, which means a half day. Robben Island at the weekend 🙂

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