For some of the teachers at N’wamankena Primary School outside Giyani in Limpopo, teaching is akin to completing an intricate jigsaw puzzle. They have to teach the Grade 6 and 7 pupils crammed into the same makeshift classroom – all at once.
This is despite the fact that the two grades are categorised into two different groups (the intermediate and senior phases), in terms of the Department of Basic Education’s curriculum policy.
The convenient lingo for these “combined” classes is multi-grades – an oddity associated with the follies of Apartheid-era Bantu education. The peculiar class at N’wamankena – persisting even 18 years after the advent of multiparty democracy – is not just an anomaly limited to Giyani or Mopani district, under which the town falls.
It is typical of the problems afflicting education in other area in Limpopo and other provinces according to the Limpopo Education Department.
“Multi-grade teaching is mostly prevalent in farm schools and some small rural schools. It is obviously not an ideal situation, but it is sometimes unavoidable given the small number of pupils per grade,” said Pat Kgomo, departmental spokesman.
But there is more to the multi-grade classes than the department might want to admit.
As the teachers at N’wamankena have found out, the dire shortage of classrooms and teaching staff is the main cause. The school, which was opened in 2006, has a single block comprising four brick classrooms and three prefabs.
The classrooms were built solely out of community contributions when it became clear that the only existing primary school in the village was becoming increasingly overcrowded. But as N’wamankena Primary School phased in one grade after another until Grade 7 over the years, accommodation problems set in.
In 2008, the department installed three prefab classrooms at the school as an interim relief measure.
The prefabs have, however, become a permanent feature of the school’s facilities.
Amenities such as a library and a computer lab remain a distant dream for the pupils and teachers. There is no staff room or principal’s office, so the teachers have to work from the veranda or take cover in their cars.
Like many other schools, shortage of teaching staff is also a problem at N’wamankena Primary.
The school now has an enrolment of 357 pupils. Until recently, when three new teachers arrived, the school had nine in total.
Unless you are a pupil at the school or a member of its teaching staff, chances are that you might never realise that there are two different grades in this prefab where the grades 6 and 7 pupils are crammed in.
It’s 10.30am on a Monday – the first day of the third term – when the maths teacher walks into the class.
Fired-up, the teacher looks unfazed as he introduces the topic of fractions.
Learning and teaching begin in earnest.
Questions are asked and classroom tasks are given with scant regard for whether the pupils responding are in Grade 6 or 7. The same wholesale, across-the-board approach applies when the pupils are split into groups.
After about 45 minutes, a whistle is blown, signalling the end of the maths period.
The maths teachers has scarcely walked out of the classroom when another teacher walks in.
“Grade 7 learners, take your books and let’s go under the tree,” yells the teacher, clutching a technology text book.
Quickly, the pupils pack their books and dart towards a big Marula tree behind the prefab. They then sit on faded red chairs facing a tiny chalkboard resting on two chairs and balanced against the tree.
Leaning down, the teacher, Rocky Ngobeni, writes on the board. But the unbalanced board falls.
Two pupils spring up and dash behind the tree and return with two large bricks.
They anchor the chalkboard with the bricks. It’s clear they’ve done this before.
Again, the whistle signals the end of the class. The Grade 7s rejoin their Grade 6 “classmates” in the prefab for another multi-grade lesson.
Most of the teachers of this multi-grade class simply implement the Grade 7 curriculum.
“It’s very difficult to have effective teaching and learning in these conditions. But it’s all we can do, to improvise,” says maths teacher Calvin Nkuna.
Ngobeni adds: “Sometimes we take another grade to the tree, but it’s difficult in cold, windy and dusty or rainy weather. It’s very difficult to implement the curriculum and assess properly.”
Another teacher in this unenviable situation is Minah Rikhotso. She teaches Xitsonga, but finds the balancing act between the two grades a difficult mission.
“I teach and assess them simultaneously. When you teach, you might think they all understand and are on the same level, but the gaps show during assessment. It’s quite an abnormal situation we are working in.”
The principal Renus Rikhotso says he and a delegation from the community, including the school governing body members, have been to the offices of the local district, Education MEC Dickson Masemola and President Jacob Zuma in an attempt to seek help.
However, nothing has come of these visits and correspondences.
Rikhotso says he is now at his wits’ end.
“All we see is service providers coming to the school to do a cost analysis for building the school, but it all ends there,” he said.
Heaving a huge sigh, he continues: “It’s very frustrating. We are told not to complain and make do with what we have, but this is very difficult.
“We feel that we are being failed by our own government. It affects our morale, but we just have to go on for the sake of the children.”
Mark Heywood of NGO Section27 says it is clear that the Limpopo Education department is “rotten, and incapable of meeting its constitutional obligation to learners”.
Salim Vally, a senior researcher and director for the Centre of Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg says the prevalence of multi-grades is one of the problems that negatively affect the provision of quality education in public schools.
“The vast majority of schools in the rural areas still don’t have computer labs and libraries and are overcrowded. You can’t expect teachers faced with these type of outrageous challenge to pull off a miracle,” he says. He added that multi-grades, just like the lack of resources and non-delivery of textbooks, was similarly a violation of the constitutional rights of children.
Kgomo said the Limpopo education department had “a huge infrastructure backlog”.
“The school is in our 2012/13 programme. We plan to build eight classrooms, renovate the existing block and build a medium admin block,” he said.