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Sixty-two Grade 4 pupils are crammed into a single classroom.
Many of the children are tugging at their navy jerseys, clambering over chairs and ignoring the three questions that are written on the blackboard.
Instead, they doodle, chat and laugh. Nemawhola Khangweleni can’t help but smile, even as he struggles to get them to focus on their technology assignment.
“Some of them are playful, so it is difficult for them to finish,” he said, laughing. “It is very difficult to identify the slow ones.”
Khangweleni is a homework assistant, part of the Extra School Support Programme (ESSP) targeting Gauteng’s 792 underperforming primary schools.
The programme seeks to supervise pupils as they complete homework assignments after school. It runs until 4pm.
At Leresche Primary School in Orlando East, Soweto, Khangweleni is the only homework assistant for the intermediate level – that is Grades 4 to 6.
When he is not instructing the 62 Grade 4 pupils, he deals with even larger classes: 64 pupils in Grade 5 and 65 in Grade 6.
Khangweleni wishes he could provide the children with more individualised attention.
“If we could have another class, where we could separate the fast ones, it would be better,” he said.
The programme at Leresche began last October, with two homework assistants and two sports assistants for 520 students, said programme supervisor Phindile Mayongo, who describes the school and teachers as supportive.
However, the programme is not without its problems.
“I would prefer to have more assistants,” Mayongo said.
“When I’m attending to Grade 1, that means we are not able to assist Grade 2 and 3. With more assistants, everything would be able to be handled together.”
Even with these difficulties, the programme at Leresche is more successful than many others. Few school programmes have as many students in attendance.
The principal at another Soweto primary school, who did not want to be named, said: “Transport – that’s the challenge we have. That’s a serious challenge.”
Many parents arrange transport for their children to leave school at 2pm, which prevents them from attending ESSP.
At yet another Soweto primary school, the principal met with parents last week to explain the value of ESSP.
Still, many are not convinced – only 10 to 20 pupils remain after school, even with six ESSP assistants available.
“Even teachers say, ‘Oh, it’s not going to help’. (The programme) needs teachers to be on the same page,” said the principal, who also wished to remain anonymous.
Khume Ramulifho, DA spokesman for Gauteng Education, reinforced these frustrations.
“Parents don’t believe kids should be in school from 7.30am until 4pm. When is life?” Ramulifho said. “We need to balance academics and extra-mural activities.”
He said keeping the programme over the long term could cause teachers to become complacent, adding that incentivising teacher performance would be a more effective way to improve education.
“Teachers cannot relinquish their responsibilities. You can’t substitute the role of teachers who are getting paid to do their job,” Ramulifho said.
The programme will run through the 2013/14 school year.