Are South African Schools Behind?

If you’ve been reading this blog, you will know that we love our kids’ school, Dainfern College. But you will also know that we’ve had some misgivings originally about the academic level, especially in math, which we had discussed with the school. We were lobbying for higher grade levels with the argument that the South African school year is already behind the Northern hemisphere by half a year, and that coupled with our kids’ advanced math skills (as well as reading, at least in the lower grades), a promotion to the next higher grade would only make sense.

That didn’t work out, and if you are a prospective expat family contemplating Dainfern College (or any other South African school, for that matter), I must warn you that most likely it will not work out for you either. Your kids will be put in the grade level they belong purely determined by age, and that’s that.

As you know, we’ve made our peace with that and couldn’t be any happier about our choice of school and all the ways it has enriched our kids’ lives. If you ask the kids, they’ll say the same.

While Sunshine might not have impressed with her math skills, everyone was quite taken with her art

And yet, the question of academic level lingers. Especially for those of you expecting to move here. Are South African schools behind?

What better opportunity to research this topic than to send our kids to school in a different country for a while? Which is exactly what we did during the April school break, thanks to friends of ours who can only be described as saints (or, perhaps, insane) for temporarily upping their household size to eight children.

Despite their misgivings about having to go to school during their break, they had a great time. I’m touched how welcome everyone made them feel and how easy and unbureaucratic it was to pull it off. Most American schools don’t allow visits anymore, period, and hosting students here involved a lot of paperwork (and money) to change hands.

Although they only went to school there for a week, and as guests didn’t receive any grades or anything, I thought I’d share their observations about public school in Germany vs. private school in South Africa with you:

“English was easy”

“The kids just stood around talking during recess; no one played”

“Religion was boring” and “The religion teacher thought I was catholic”

“The kids had no respect for most teachers” 

“Walking off the school grounds to the nearest döner kebab stand or wherever during break was awesome” 

“We had no clue what they were doing in math”

Regarding English: Well, duh! Of course it’s easy if you speak English the entire day. I guess I don’t give credit to the language aspect of our expat assignment as we have that in the U.S. as well. They didn’t tell me how easy or hard German was, which would have been the more interesting question, and I didn’t see any spelling homework. I’m sure it wouldn’t look pretty. What they did tell me, though, is how impressed they were that the English teacher spoke English the entire time (this is a partial English language immersion program, I’m not sure if it’s like that at all German schools). Their foreign language teachers here in South Africa apparently don’t always do that (new post about Afrikaans upcoming). Kudos to language instruction in German schools.

Regarding recess, or break: Laugh at me for my criteria of what makes a good school, but break time, arguably the one thing the school doesn’t formally structure, is immensely important. I have long decried the slow decline of recess at many American schools, fueled on the one hand by a frenzy to stuff the curriculum with ever more academics, particularly math and English, so as not to fall behind even more in international and No-Child-Left-Behind testing, and on the other by a fear of litigation when children get hurt. I was absolutely stunned when my children, back then at elementary school in Kansas, informed me that playing tag was forbidden, in case a child tripped and fell. As were the monkey bars, ever since a boy had fallen off them and broken his arm. And don’t even get me started on lunch time in the cafeteria, where any talk above a whisper was forbidden and punished when it did occur. The German school didn’t impose any of that rigidity and the kids were allowed to use their break however they wanted, but a paved schoolyard just isn’t the same as what we have here: Grass everywhere, including vast soccer and cricket fields, several playgrounds with, yes, monkey bars (with kids falling off of them) and much else, a tuck shop where lunch can be bought and eaten, if so desired. Walk the grounds at Dainfern College during break time on any given day and you’ll be dodging soccer balls and running kids while listening to happy screaming all around you. The kids are left to their own devices (no teachers like we’ve had in the U.S. telling the kids that everyone has to be included if they want to play kickball) and sometimes that is cause for tears when so-and-so “didn’t want to play with me” but overall I can’t imagine a happier and more carefree affair than break time at our South African school.

Regarding religion: I had to laugh when Jabulani told me how his friend introduced him as a student from South Africa to the religion teacher, and how the teacher more or less dismissed him with a “No, you’re probably just a Catholic.” I’m sure this can be attributed to the fact that Jabulani’s German is almost perfect, as it should be, making the teacher reluctant to believe he’d come all the way from South Africa, but it also shows the peculiar setup of religious instruction at German schools. The kids are divided up according to their denomination, as stated on their personal details, and assigned to the appropriate religion class with the appropriate teacher. Our kids of course aren’t used to having religion as a school subject. I’d be happy if they did, especially a “religious studies” class covering all major world religions, but in the end the main message of any religious teachings should be tolerance and respect, topics that permeate every fiber of our (Christian but nondenominational) school here in South Africa.

Regarding the respect thing: It was interesting how quickly the kids zeroed in on that. I had expected this, as even a hundred years or so ago when I went to school in Germany we didn’t treat our teachers with much respect (building – and throwing – paper airplanes or playing cards under the table comes to mind, or the time we decided, for some unexplained reason, to throw fruit from a nearby bowl into the ceiling fan; though come to think of it, that class was one where the teacher did command a lot of respect and we paid dearly for this folly during the rest of the school year by having to sit next to kids of the opposite sex, ugh!).

Our kids were appalled that there were classes where a teacher stood in the front writing on the board while there was mayhem in the class behind him. They could only imagine the world of trouble they’d be in if they did something like that at our school here. You better have your “yes mam” and “good afternoon sir” down pat if you want to survive at a South African school. The funny thing is, the kids seem to like it when there is order and respect. Do the school uniforms contribute to it? It’s only one factor, I think. Respect was never a problem either at any of our American schools, even without uniforms. It’s just a matter of culture and how a society raises its children. As it is, the teachers at the German school absolutely loved our children, for their respect not only for the teachers but also for their fellow students.

Grade 5 math  lesson in Germany

Regarding independence: I’m not sure how I feel about that. I think officially only grade 11 and 12 kids were allowed to leave school grounds, but in reality most kids who felt like it did. Especially when a teacher didn’t show for class, which seemed to happen quite frequently. Yes, it’s nice for your kids to become more independent, especially when it comes to public transport to get wherever they need to be getting. Zax loved going out without having to arrange rides with anybody. And neither my parents or I ever thought twice about the the fact that I was bicycling around town, from an early age, whenever I felt like it. But this is just not the norm here in South Africa. Nor would it be very prudent. I actually quite like our little protected world here, where I know where my kids are at all times, and where substitute teachers are summoned to fill in for any missing ones.

Regarding math: This gets me back to the original question of this post, sorry for the slight detour. Yes, South African schools are behind in math (perhaps they are behind in general but how do you measure “behind” or “ahead” in any other subject? Our kids seemed to be able to easily follow everything else). It does worry me that the kids were so utterly lost in math, though I did expect it. Impatience, who even went down a grade (from 6 to 5) for this German experiment was especially hard-pressed to even describe what it was that they did in math, but her notebook revealed it was geometry, measuring the area of a triangle. Which grade is best for learning this? I don’t know, but German children seem to do fine learning it in grade 5. All our kids agreed that here in South Africa most of what they ever seem to be doing is “revision,” i,e. making sure you really understand what you’ve already learned. Which I guess is a good thing, but it seems to mean that they are perpetually stuck in fractions for their entire school career. It’s not that they don’t do math, quite the contrary, but they’re not pushed ahead as quickly as they could be. Much like American schools don’t push the kids nearly enough when it comes to foreign languages.

It looks like some serious catch-up work in math is awaiting us at some point in our future. I suppose, had the kids stayed in Germany, they would have eventually caught up, especially given how well they adjusted to such an entirely new environment. Come to think of it, that is precisely how you could describe my own school career. I went to a Waldorf School for ten years before venturing out into the great big world of (gulp) REAL grades, the threat of failing, and actual science versus beautiful stories. (please excuse the simplification – a discussion of the Waldorf philosophy and pros and cons would take at least a whole new blog post; I have some regrets, but many things to be grateful for regarding my parents’ choice of school for me and my siblings; just let me say that there IS a Waldorf School here in Johannesburg, should you be interested). I remember being stunned to learn at age 17 how far I was behind the rest of the world in terms of actual math knowledge. There was a thing called calculus out there while I had been busy coloring beautiful homework book entries and inundating my parents with a barrage of hand-crafted items! But guess what? I was so happy to discover this new challenge that I majored in math and physics the last two years of high school and ended up at or near the top of my class throughout the rest of my educational career.

Math, if my experience is anything to go by, can be learned at any time. What’s much harder to learn later in life is self-confidence, mental flexibility, languages, courage, music, embracing diversity, respect, and compassion. South African schools might lag behind in math, but they do a wonderful job bringing out these other virtues in our children.

I’m not sure why we can’t have both, and why our school seems so resistant to address the math gap, for instance by offering advanced classes at an earlier age. But given the choices we have, I’m happy to take the “everything-else” part of education provided here and trust that my kids will catch up in math later.

If you’re a prospective expat planning a move to South Africa, I hope I’ve helped give you more material for an informed decision on school choice. By all means, research Johannesburg schools to find the one that will be best for your child, but know that academic level is only one factor to be considered.

Share this: