Abigail Stewart
Abigail Stewart

What kind of education does it take to help someone escape the clutches of poverty? One young South African from gang-ridden Mannenberg, Cape Town, says it starts with giving young people a reason to hope that things could be different.

 As learners and schools gear up for the annual matric exams, the national spotlight can be expected to once more be veering towards the parlous state of the country’s education system. Ranked at 138 out of 140 countries in terms of maths and science in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2015/16, South Africa appears to have lost the plot. And the public can brace themselves for the usual string of experts bemoaning the apparent demise of South African education, trotting out their assorted causes for its failure.

But for one young graduate of South Africa’s education system, Abigail Stewart, there is another way. She believes that instead of looking for what’s wrong, we should be finding the pockets of success and making sure these are replicated and spread.

“My own story proves that there are practical, sustainable solutions for improving our education system,” says Stewart. At 24, Stewart who comes from the gang-ridden horror of Mannenberg, is now preparing for a promising career in the hospitality industry in Germany. She attributes her success to her school Christel House, a not-for-profit school in Ottery, Cape Town, and is a sparkling example of how the school’s holistic, and above all, caring and involved approach brings out the true value and potential of each individual.

According to all statistical expectations, Christel House should be recording miserable academic results, since all its students come from extreme poverty, emotionally disruptive backgrounds and violent, crime- and drug-ridden communities. Yet for the last seven years it has notched up a 100% matric pass rate and 95% of its graduates are either continuing their education or are employed.

Refreshingly frank about her traumatising background and her fractured character, Stewart is now a confident and animated young lady who proudly lives the core values she has assimilated at the school: respect, responsibility, integrity and independence.

“You learn quickly that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are or where you come from, you hold your own life and choices in your hands and it’s what you do with the opportunities that is going to make a difference,” she explains.

She speaks openly about her own, sometimes confusing journey, struggling to find her identity, seeking acceptance and yet rebelling against opportunities through deep-set fears of feeling them slip from her grasp or of finding that they were too good to be true. The stark contrast between the values, principles and structured life of Christel House and her own chaotic, corrupt and impoverished community, Mannenberg in the Cape Flats, demanded radical adjustments in her attitudes and behaviour.

“If it wasn’t for those amazing, committed teachers and social workers, I wouldn’t be here today,” she says. “They take us into their hearts without reservation. They care and mentor with no strings attached, and never give up. Many of them come from similar backgrounds, so they relate to where we are at – they know and understand the challenges we are confronting and the emotions we’re going through.”

Stewart is loud in her praise of the strong emphasis on holistic character development and the inspiration of role models, sensitive too to the fact that she is now a role model for those coming behind her.

The Chrysalis Academy – another example of an education anomaly that is delivering successful graduates against the odds just down the road from Christel House in Cape Town – defines character development as developing “the spiritual, emotional, mental, physical and energetic levels … to release the deep-seated inner potential.”

The Academy is of 130 education innovation case studies that have been assembled by the Education Innovation initiative at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Like Stewart, the unit believes that there is no shortage of excellent examples of innovation in education design and delivery that could be successfully scaled to deliver better education outcomes.

And like Stewart, the initiative highlights through their case studies that a focus on individual potential, character, and growth needs to be a core part of a successful education system.

“We as youngsters need not just academic instruction, we need to learn how to make the right choices. And we need to learn how to dream,” says Stewart. “Thanks to the support I got I saw that while poverty might well be at the root of much of what is wrong in a community like Mannenberg, leading to crime, immorality, hopelessness, lack of respect, drugs and prostitution, it doesn’t mean you as an individual have to give up on yourself.”

Also key, she believes, is the role of business. “We need more businesses and organisations to have the courage to move into communities like Mannenberg,” she insists. “They need to introduce entrepreneurial programmes and workshops that will encourage young people to realise that they are the ones who must shape their futures. I saw what a huge difference the involvement of corporate and similar organisations made in our education,” she points out. “Their help in the form of ICT Labs, technology and financial support has been invaluable. The exposure to visiting business donors also opened up new dimensions of life and experience to me and fellow students and it inspired and instilled hope.”

Her views find an august echo in the words of Dr Jonathan Jansen. Writing in The Herald last month, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Free State and President of the South African Institute of Race Relations said that in the face of failing education systems new models need to emerge that consider greater collaboration between state and private institutions.

“Under such circumstances a new model of the school is needed, for with each passing year another generation of mostly poor, black South African youth are cast aside such that the rest of their lives are marked by educational failure and chronic unemployment,” writes Jansen.

Nicky Sheridan, the CEO of Christel House, himself a former corporate man who has moved into the NGO sector in a bid to give-back, agrees. “A holistic approach to education costs money, but it is money well spent. While the government has a vital key role to play in supporting education and creating an enabling environment for learning, corporate partners and other donors can also make a huge difference, not only in terms of funds, but in terms of expertise.”

“Such partnerships can work to ensure that school leavers emerge better equipped to take on demanding tertiary studies. They can also help prepare pupils, more broadly, to become active economic citizens.

“Without such an approach that values the whole person and pulls on all the resources available to enable this to emerge, there will be fewer young people like Abigail who are able to make the journey out of poverty.”

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