‘Focus on fixing the foundation’

Principal of the Salesian Institute skills school in Green Point, Madeleine Thornhill.
Madeleine Thornhill is the principal of the Salesian Institute, which is more than 110 years old. It’s in the last five of those years that the institute has sought to remodel itself into a skills school.

It has 220 pupils and a long waiting list.

“We have changed over the years to adapt to the socio-economic environment. Initially it was a technical high school for boys and before that it was a school for street children,” Ms Thornhill said.

The school caters to some of the most vulnerable youth in society, youngsters who have nowhere else to go. To attend the school’s four-year programme, pupils have to be at least 13.

“The children who come to the school are those that are unable to complete formal schooling due to certain circumstances. It’s usually socio-economic circumstances,” Ms Thornhill said. “We have a lot of children that come here that have been out of school for a number of years and might decide that they want to go back.”

The school operates by word of mouth and doesn’t do any formal advertising. There are no schools fees, meals are provided and pupils’ transport costs covered.

“We make it possible for every child to have an education. The pupils come from all over the peninsula as far as Hout Bay and Stellenbosch,” Ms Thornhill said.

The school gets a small subsidy from government but it relies mostly on donations.

“That is why we need the community involved,” Ms Thornhill said. “We try to look at a child holistically and look at every need that a child might have so that they can succeed in life. We try to fill those gaps.”

While Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan promised recently to budget R5 billion for higher education, Ms Thornhill believes the investment needs to be in the foundation phase, especially Grades R, 1, 2 and 3.

“If basic education in the foundation phase was sorted, we would have an empty school,” she said. “The kids that come here are the ones that the system has failed in some way or another. It might be a child that needed extra attention but just never got it. The parents become desperate but they can’t go back to mainstream schools.”

The school sometimes refers pupils to adult training facilities so they can complete Grade 9. It has also formed partnerships with various companies to help pupils in the fourth and final year of its programme find jobs.

Professor Eric Atmore, director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development in Claremont, agrees that more money needs to go into pre-Grade R and Grade R.

“Research has shown that it is a cost saver in the long run.

“The earlier the investment, the greater economic and educational return. The lack of investment in Grade R means that we can’t get the quality we want.”

Professor Atmore said even though Mr Gordhan had mentioned early childhood development centres in his budget speech, the resources didn’t always filter through.

Ms Thornhill has been the principal at the Salesian Institute for five years and the children hold a special place in her heart. “I am a foster mom, and I’ve got six kids at home. I first came just as a relief teacher for two weeks. These children grab your heart because they are no different to any other child, they just have more obstacles along the way.

“The teachers here work under very difficult circumstances because we are a family school. They are the moms and dads to the kids.”

There are also people who volunteer at the institute a few times a week.

Ms Thornhill believes focusing resources on the foundation phase to keep classes small and spot learning barriers early eases pressure on the education system later on.

If a child was taught to think critically and read and write “then everything else will follow automatically”.

Children should be taught from a young age how use technology for research and how to be safe on social media. Practical life skills were also a must.

The school offers English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, maths and natural sciences, as well as life orientation and physical education. Workshops teach basic skills in things such as wholesale and retail, arts and crafts, painting and waterproofing, plumbing, mechanics and tiling.

Ms Thornhill spoke proudly about a 20-year-old pupil who landed a job after recently completing his fourth and final year at the school. Even though he had he been living in a shack with no income he still managed to get to school every day.

“It is a success story from somebody who made something from nothing in life. He had enough strength in character to stand up and make a success of himself.”