School Visits 2013

Schools are not homogeneous spaces and the students who seek admission to UKZN are similarly, a heterogeneous, diverse group of individuals. These students enter higher education with unequal schooling experiences and different expectations in relation to teaching and learning. However, university teaching is often approached on the assumption that those we teach are similar. To destabilise the taken-forgranted assumption, university teachers were taken for a visit to three state schools in 2013. The purpose of the visits was to get acquainted with the school contexts UKZN draws its students from and to factor in the diversity of school contexts with the aim that the visits would influence our approaches to teaching and student expectations.

The first school visited was situated very close to the university and from its playgrounds, the Memorial Tower was visible. Some students with who we engaged in conversations, were not even aware that a university was close by. There was much walking about by teachers and students during teaching time and the challenges they faced were associated with lack of teaching resources, insufficient numbers of teachers and managing the shortage of funds to manage the school effectively. Teachers at the school spent a considerable part of each day preparing meals for the children. For many children, the school lunch was the only meal of the day. This was the only primary school visited.

The second school visited was situated in the township of Umlazi. It is a high-performing school with a record of 100% pass rate in the matric exam for more that two decades. It was immediately apparent that the school was well organised, that the infrastructure was maintained and used efficiently and that the most important factor for academic success was the dynamic and inspirational role of the principal to both staff and students. He took care to oversee every aspect of the school.

The third school visited was situated in Chatsworth. In terms of performance in the matric examination the school did not fare well. It became clear that the focus of this school was on the psychosocial and emotional well-being of students and on providing support for poor families. Once again, led by a dynamic leader, the school admitted high school students who were rejected, expelled or suspended by high-performing schools in the area. Fund-raising was undertaken by staff to pay utility bills and to provide food hampers for needy families. The support for families improved student performance but not to the level that enabled the school to acquire high performance status.

It became apparent to UKZN staff that schools were servicing different agendas and that these agendas were of an academic nature in one instance and in the other two were inclined towards social welfare and nutritional needs. There was consensus during discussions on the return bus journey that some of the psychosocial, nutritional and social welfare factors may continue to persist in the lives of UKZN students and that the visits did sensitise academics to the hidden complexities of students’ lives.

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