Research: Schooling in rural South Africa

Small, isolated schools reveals prospective blueprint to academic success


By Clive W. Kronenberg Ph.D


It would be fair to say that many if not most scholars engaged in researching South Africa’s public education system would quite naturally, or inevitably, draw attention to its titanic failures and paucities in recent decades. Its sweeping bleakness regarding ushering in better prospects for the majority of the country’s children is there for all to see.

A recent Educational Conference organized by the Joint Cultural Societies in Cape Town carried the sub-theme: No real education is possible in an abnormal society. Here the familiar premise was advanced that, since education is but a reflection of our broader society, no real educational change was viable without, ultimately, meaningful and productive social change. Key presenters thus argued that the country’s existing taxation model, for instance, calls for change, where the rich must be taxed more appropriately, for the benefit of the disfavoured majority.

Existing toils and struggles need to be taken up on deeper grassroots levels, was a further argument advanced on the occasion. “Labouring, perpetually poor communities should speak truth to power” declared an outspoken expert, while another mooted the necessity of establishing, in the long run, “a socialist orientated governing system” where “the needs and aspirations of the poor are paramount.”

A careful, honest scrutiny of these standpoints shows that each of them carries weight, notwithstanding our individual, ideological predispositions. Proponents of capitalism cannot evade the fundamental reality that the mechanisms, rules, and procedures of the market economy are mostly based on the principle of competition.

Individual and not social advancement remains life’s primary purpose. The profit motive is both the wellspring and thrust of capital accumulation, notwithstanding how restrained or subtle this may be articulated in modern times. Regarding the provision of safe, quality education, the overriding question that emerges here is this: how long – in years and decades – would it take for productive, meaningful social change to come about? If the recent local elections are anything to go by (and not dismissing the state’s hard-handed response to the #feesmustfall campaign) would it be apt to say that this could take anything from ten, twenty, or even thirty years? In other words, in the absence of social change, what is the fate of the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s 12 million and more school-going children today?

One suitable, provisional response to this all-encompassing problem is to gain deeper awareness and understanding of how poor, struggling schooling communities have endeavored to overcome the odds. Such an approach could very well present a suitable educational framework – broadly defined – for others to emulate or for the very least, contemplate in their quest to raise attainment levels and educational standards while real social change remains obscure and elusive.


Flowing from prior field research studies initiated in 2014 in the broader, rural Overberg region of South Africa, two primary schools were selected for further in-depth scrutiny (during the month of August 2016). These schools were selected on the basis that, despite them being relatively small, isolated, and impoverished, they were well-functioning and industrious, regularly winning regional prizes in maths and science education. Consisting of a lead researcher, an assistant, and a two-member filming crew, the project’s overall goal was to determine, and illustrate, by means of photographic and DVD capturing, particular aspects that have contributed to these schools’ somewhat rare accomplishments, if we consider the frightful situation currently swamping most of South Africa’s 5.8 million rural school children. It is strongly contended that, while we remain hopeful of and committed to “a better life for all” these schools bring good, intervening lessons to their many struggling peers.


About the researcher: 

Clive W. Kronenberg is a Senior Researcher at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa. ​ is a news platform with in-depth coverage of under-reported issues in rural communities in Nigeria and across Africa. We report on Agriculture, Health, Women and generally on Rural Development. To pitch a story idea or submit a report, please email:

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