Universal approaches to education is diverse, and what we have tried to do is to examine the best elements of different systems in the World, starting of course with our own country. South Africa has a difficult history in education, and as Professor Brian O’Connell, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape said in 1996, the forging of 17 education departments across the Homelands and racial divide into one unitary system was a modern miracle, with no precedent in the history of formal education. But the authors of our Constitution, in their wisdom, created space for the creation of independent schools, many of which has become centres of excellence in education. The huge public school system in South Africa, catering for more than 11 million learners, have had its challenges, both in terms of infrastructural backlogs and disadvantagement of human capital development. But the policy frameworks are in place, notwithstanding the implementation challenges. South Africa has adopted the principles of outcomes-based education, a philosophy that is underpinned by the principle that all learners can and do learn, in an active learning environment. We also looked at the British O-levels and A-levels system, as well as successful systems in the East, particularly South Korea. But the system that impressed us most was that of Finland, and we visited Helsinki early in 2017. Here we were given the opportunity to visit various schools and observe in practice how classes are conducted on a regular school day.
Here the teachers explained to us that their success is largely due to them being given autonomy to adapt the National Curriculum to their needs as a school and as a class. It follows thus that the Finnish teachers are highly qualified with the minimum qualification a Masters in Education degree and entry requirements to teacher training very high. In fact, in Finland, teaching is one of the most sought-after professions and teachers are held in absolute high esteem. Teachers also have the freedom to choose their own textbooks and to teach those aspects of the curriculum that are relevant to their environment within the framework of the national curriculum.
In observing the learners, we were struck at how relaxed and happy the learning environment was. The methodology was very hands-on, and theoretical learning was translated into practice in an almost seamless way. Mathematics and Languages , together with Science, is taught from Grade 1. Craft skills like needlework, knitting and woodwork are regarded as important as the main disciplines. Learners are taught in themes which allows them to understand that life and learning is one integrated whole.
One aspect that impressed us was the emphasis on play in early childhood development. In fact, in the Foundation Phase timetable, play is part of the school programme. Lessons are structured in such a way that learners take a break between lessons, which has to be outside, no matter the state of the weather!
In the Finnish schooling system homework is kept to a minimum. Children are not encouraged to be busy with homework for the entire afternoon after dismissal, but rather to spend time with family, to participate in sports, and to play. Reading is required every day, and possibly a little Mathematics to reinforce the concepts that was taught in school. This takes the burden off the children as well as their parents who (i) may not be schooled to teach the subjects that get taught at school especially in the manner that it is meant to get taught, and (ii) to free the parent to also relax after a long day at work. In Finland, all school projects are planned and completed at school. This allows the learners the opportunity to work in groups (thus learning planning, accountability, and social skills) and allow them to be assessed on their age appropriate abilities.
In Finland, continuous assessment informs progress, and not major examinations. Self-assessment is a vital part of the learning process, for this allows the learner to be aware of their own progress and to self-correct their work, make them realise that learning is a process and that they are an integral part of that process. Children from 6 years attend pre-primary schools, where basic skills and concepts are taught, with an emphasis on learning through play. Primary school is from grade 1 (7 year olds) to grade 9. Grade 1-6 is considered as basic primary school, and grade 7 to 9 as lower secondary grades. It is often not uncommon for the same teacher to stay with the same group from grade 1 to 6. Subject specialist teachers teach the learners in grades 7 to 9.
So this will be our approach, our philosophy if you like, at Grassroots Preparatory School:
- We will teach the content of the CAPS curriculum and use the best practice principles of the Finnish system to deliver that content.
- Our learners will be provided with a fun, relaxed environment to encourage a love for learning, but within the framework of sound didactics and pedagogy.
- We believe that learning is for life, and can never be limited to one preparing for an examination only. That is why we will lay emphasis on the thematic approach to learning, so that learners understand that life is one integrated whole.
- We will not load our learners with tons of homework, for we believe their after school life should revolve around play, extra-mural activities, family time, and home life.
- We will plan school projects to be structured and completed within the school day.
- We will structure our times to enable learners to take a break between lessons taught, to play, to socialize, and to develop communication skills.