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I recently returned from an exhilarating week, with a colleague and two students, at Barkly West High, our South African link school.
At assembly on our first day a student lead the singing of the national anthem. The first verse was from Nkosi Sikele iAfrika, the ANC anthem, sung in Xhosa and in Sesotho, the second from Die Stem, the old anthem, in Afrikaans and in English.  That amalgamation was a revelation and a symbol of the hopes of most young South Africans.  The seriousness and the enthusiasm of the singing however, was also a revelation.  We saw and heard a new nation and a new culture emerging.
Classes are streamed.  The most senior teachers in any subject area taught the most senior classes, the most junior teachers the most junior classes.  The curriculum was less cluttered than inScotlandbut high on its priority list was Life Orientation, the equivalent of Personal and Social Education.  Life Orientation addressed issues of drink and rugs, issues for significant numbers of teenagers, and gave special emphasis to Aids awareness.  21 of the 1,080 pupils in a primary which we visited were HIV-positive.  There remained some debate over whether the appropriate educational response was one of abstention or of damage limitation: chastity or condoms?
We had other surprises.  Corporal punishment remains legal but we saw no sign of it.  A more formal approach (‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ being the norms) and a clear understanding and acceptance of status and hierarchies seemed universal, between teachers and students, among teachers and in society at large.  None the less warm, friendly relations were the norm.  The overall quality of teaching was very good, in some cases superb.  The engagement with learning appeared higher than at home.  Among the young people there seemed to be a recognition (perhaps more common inScotland50 years ago) that education was the route to both personal and social improvement.
Education has both a price and a value.  In Barkly West (a former ‘colured’, i.e. mixed race) school there are increasing numbers of learners from the black township, just as the former white school in the community now attracts children of the ambitious and upwardly mobile coloured and black families.  In all schools however there are fees.  In Barkly West these were some eight pounds a year, a relatively small sum but a symbol of the commitment of parents.  (Students also brought wood in winter for the stoves in each classroom.)  South Africahas developed rapidly but unequally: state-of-the-art shopping malls exist within a mile of township shanties.
If these are resource-poor schools (as suggested, not only by the stoves, but by the skeletal library, limited texts and lack of computers) they are people-rich.  Teachers are skilled and imaginative and school management is inspiring, energetic and with a broad vision of where schools should be going.  The young people themselves are vibrant, optimistic and committed.
For Wester Hailes teachers and students, our week’s glance at Barkly West was inspiring and humbling, in equal measure.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 2 November 2007.

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