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Pre-schools in rural Kwazulu-Natal
It felt good to return with Bev to some of those rural Pre-schools I had visited over a period of years. Like any school, each have their own characteristics according to the personality of the teacher(s) the location, the physical building and the dynamic of the group of children.
The pre-schools are spread over a huge rural area. A network of small rutted tracks climbing high into the hills spread like veins running through the body. Where each of these tracks petered out there is a small rectangular mud built hut with a corrugated iron roof or a thatched rondavel (round house,) surrounded by a small rough grassed area marked out by a barbed wire fence. There would be a separate toilet building somewhere in the enclosure. Most had few resources: possibly a few Lego or Duplo blocks, junk cartons for make believe play, a few posters on the wall, a scattering of pencils crayons and some drawing paper, which is eked out in small pieces until the next supply arrives. Plastic tables and chairs and outside some were lucky enough to have tyres and a jungle gym.
The children straggle along to the pre-school buildings in ones, twos or threes, with or without mothers or gogos (grandmothers,) on rutted paths, hilly tracks or across rough grassland. They appear eager, hungry, often really hungry, and ready for whatever the teacher will deliver.
When I held a meeting for the pre-school teachers I asked them to talk in groups and share the important and positive things that kept them going as teachers. The feedback I got was that they were rewarded by the happiness of the children and they loved to play games and be there for them. They were reluctant to say anything negative. Twenty seven teachers arrived at the community hall between 8.30 and 9.30. They had made the effort to walk or wait for transport at their own cost to get together and share and perhaps to see what I had to offer. Among those gathered were faces I recognised from the first workshops I facilitated for the teachers. Some I had met on more recent visits, 2005 or 2011 and some fairly new.
The reality was that the going is tough. There are many requirements a Pre-school has to fulfil before being registered with the social department and become eligible for a grant. Most had met those requirements; a secure fence, a safe building with tables and chairs suitable for young children. The teachers must show they have a basic level of training and a daily programme and other activities displayed prominently on the walls. A register for the children ….
In fact, despite working hard at attaining this some teachers were still waiting for the inspection and as far as I was aware, none had received even the small remuneration they were entitled to. The teachers were there for the children the reward for the teachers is the happiness of the children. The fees that should be paid for their school places are rarely paid. This is a region of high unemployment. There is less than 10% employment! There are Grade R, (reception teachers) who have a higher grade of training and when the Reception age changed from six to five these teachers were either moved into the primary schools and paid a salary or remained in the pre-schools if there were not enough classes in the local primary schools.
The resourcefulness and the stamina of these teachers is phenomenal. There will be days when the school is closed or days when morale is low. There are families to support and sick people to support but the teachers need to be encouraged and congratulated on all they do. Often the children come in hungry, families are poor. The children are a mixed bunch in age; sometimes teachers are having to juggle baby feeding with coaxing the older four year olds. Bev with the help of a team of volunteers in Creighton provide Maize and Soya mince to about seventeen of these pre-schools.
At the site of one pre-school, a steep plot above a rutted hill track, we met two women singing and laughing as they made clay bricks. On the ground rows of bricks lay ready to be used. There was no building.
The teacher told us that the storms of the previous week had washed her school away so they just got on and made some new bricks. Meanwhile she explained that they had requisitioned a house in a track below them and a teacher was working with the children there until the new school was built.
Some teachers worked alone with a few children others had two or more teachers, varying in age and experience. There might be anything from between six to forty children at a pre-school. One school is a relatively new wooden building donated by a woman from Pretoria. It is well equipped and has a large outside play area equipped with a range of climbing equipment and even a boat. This school has attracted a large number of children and has several teachers.
Another teacher has asked a local business for funding, which is quite unusual. They have been provided with a lovely garden and outside equipment.
Some teachers just have that gift for inspiring the children to play creatively with few junk resources, others use their imagination in stories and many enjoy the traditional Zulu dancing with their high leg kicks that the children love to demonstrate.
In many ways there is little change in the pre-schools. It would be good to see more resources, for the teachers to get the training they need to really give the children the best start in education. If not paid as professionals they should at least gain the self-esteem and feel valued in the vital role they play in their communities. Of course, it would be even better if they were paid a decent wage. Like so many areas of rural life the government has plans in place. The new bureaucracy supports the aims of the communities but the wheels of functionality and provision are not turning. Corruption and politics often syphon off the money before it reaches those remote places. This apparently is true throughout education at every level in South Africa and there has been a lot of discontent resulting in National strikes. What is important though is the recognition that establishing an ethos of education from the very beginning of life right through to adult literacy is the only way forward to build stronger and sustainable communities.
I come away with a strong mental image of little groups of young children brim-full of curiosity.