Manenberg in Cape Town, South Africa, is infamous for its high crime rate, but it is now being associated with academic excellence, writes the BBC’s Mo Allie.
Looking from the outside at The Leadership College (TLC) with its basic structure and its small classrooms, surrounded by sandy waste ground, it is hard to imagine that this is the same school that has managed consistently to deliver top-class results since its inception seven years ago.
Yet last year the school achieved a 92% pass rate in South Africa’s national school-leaving examinations – far higher than the national average.
That performance is in stark contrast with a finding of the report by the Johannesburg-based Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), which suggests large proportions of South Africa’s graduating students are “functionally illiterate and innumerate”.
The report found that South Africa – one of the continent’s richest countries – was performing worse than many far poorer African nations in terms of educating its children.
How does TLC compare?
- TLC’s school-leaving exam pass rate: 92% in 2016
- National average: 72.5%
- Average pass rate in Manenberg: 71%
But what makes TLC’s achievements even more remarkable is that it is located in Manenberg, a run-down area just 15 minutes from Cape Town’s international airport, often in the news for the crime, gang violence and drug dealing that stalks its streets.
“The community itself and the township keep you down if you get into its lifestyle,” says former head girl Thania Abrahams, who achieved five distinctions in last year’s Matric exams.
“For me to rise above that, I had to focus on my goals.”
Thania’s results were good enough to get her enrolled for a degree in medicine at Stellenbosch University, one of the best tertiary institutions in South Africa.
She wasn’t the only TLC student to win a place at Stellenbosch: Imraan Ismail got six distinctions and a place to study chartered accounting.
Of the 71 distinctions produced in Manenberg last year, all but three came from TLC.
TLC is a private school, run by the 2 Oceans Education Foundation, which counts Yusuf Islam, the singer previously known as Cat Stevens, among its patrons.
Thanks to its government and charitable funding, the area’s academically gifted students can attend for free – even down to school excursions.
Many of TLC’s learners come from tough backgrounds, broken homes together with a variety of socio-economic problems that plague the townships in which they live.
In 2015, no child accepted to TLC came from a household which earned more than 8,000 rand ($640; £510) a month.
About 90% of the students are Muslim but the founders stress it is open to all races and denominations.
But TLC does not just offer the opportunity to excel in the classroom.
The school serves as an oasis of tranquillity as it provides a safe space for the pupils who have free access there to psychologists and occupational therapists – something these children would never otherwise have access to.
The health professionals play a key role in helping the learners overcome their often traumatic circumstances which include witnessing murders, armed robberies, abusive relationships or simply a lack of affection at home.
Ashra Norton, TLC director:
“What I am particularly pleased about is that learners are now thinking about doing courses in areas like actuarial science, health, physical sciences and engineering.”
However, one of the main reasons behind the success of TLC is the strict discipline coupled with the hard work put in by both pupils and teachers.
The school’s navy and light blue uniform, which is given free of charge to each of the pupils, plays an important part in creating an identity and sense of togetherness in a community where gangs have filled that vacuum for many youngsters.
Meanwhile, the school organizes extra lessons in maths and science, as well as in any other subjects that pupils find problematic, over weekends and sometimes during the week for those in their final year.
“Although I’m very happy, I’ll feel even better if all the other schools in Manenberg could get similar results,” says TLC director Ashra Norton, who grew up in the area.
‘Hard work and determination’
The school is doing its part here as well, however: TLC hosts joint tuition programmes with other schools in the area in an effort to help pupils keep up with their work.
The 2 Oceans Education Foundation is involved with six other schools in Cape Town, most of them in the poorer townships.
Its most recent involvement is with Langa High School, located in Cape Town’s oldest black township, which had a Matric pass rate of just 34% last year.
“There is no quick fix solution,” Mrs Norton says. “It requires hard work and determination to survive against extraordinary odds. We have a very strong intervention programme in the school starting from their first year in grade eight.”
The programme includes providing daily sandwiches or meals that are sometimes provided by sponsors to nearly half of the 625 pupils who come from economically deprived homes.
The school has managed to raise the bar for pupils who are now aiming much higher than their parents could ever have dreamed of.
“What I am particularly pleased about is that learners are now thinking about doing courses in areas like actuarial science, health and physical sciences and engineering which was unheard of a few years ago,” says Mrs Norton.