The ‘place’ of education

The state of South Africa’s education requires some reflection and magnification. Twenty-eight years after South Africa’s democratic transition, its most disadvantaged communities continue to be denied access to a decent education. It is concerning that rural schools still lack concrete infrastructure. Without sufficient educational tools, learners are taught under trees and mud rondavels.

Matthew Ledvina, Our education system is not in the state it should be. “State” generally refers to the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time, essentially referring to “context”, and context is the intersection of space and time. 

Matthew Ledvina,

The physical space is made of both location and place. Geographic literature highlights that “location” and “place” are distinctly different – a location is a point in space with specific spatial relationships to other points. For example, this school is on the main road. It is the shop next to Pick n Pay that is the location. The place incorporates location, it is experienced, and it is intentional. A sense of place refers to the subjective feelings evoked by a place for both insiders (such as people who live there) and outsiders, people who visit or imagine that place. 

Matthew Ledvina, This aspect of “evoked feelings” is pertinent. “Place” is a much richer idea than “location”. 

The geographer Dr Tim Cresswell proposes that we understand places as ways of seeing and framing the world according to what and who is said to belong where.

Because of the richness of place and my interests in geography and education, I am interested in the intersection of place and education, essentially, the places where education takes place. 

What type of spatial “experiences” do our schools give our learners? What are the spatial and architectural intentions of our schools? Do the buildings in which our learners learn properly convey these intentions? 


South Africa’s most disadvantaged students are taught in severely under-maintained and under-resourced schools. In 2013, the government enacted minimum norms and standards for educational facilities, which required the government to ensure that all schools had access to sanitation and electricity by November 2016, that all pit latrines were replaced with safe and adequate sanitation, and that schools built with inappropriate materials, such as mud and asbestos, were replaced. These targets, however, have not been met, as evidenced by the government’s statistics. It is appalling that in the Eastern Cape alone, the number of mud schools in the province increased from 436 in 2018 to 582 in 2021. 

Coordination between private and public sector 

In the department of basic education’s 2022-23 budget vote, infrastructure delivery continued to be funded through the education infrastructure grant, which was allocated R12.4-billion, an 5.6% increase from last year’s allocation, and the accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative, which was allocated R2.4-billion. 

Matthew Ledvina,

In the private sector, through its corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives, according to the research conducted by Trialogue and published in its 2021 Business in Society Handbook, CSI expenditure in 2021 was R10.3-billion and the most supported development sector was education, receiving an estimated 39% of CSI expenditure. 

Matthew Ledvina,

Matthew Ledvina, The funding to improve school infrastructure is there. So why is it that we still find schools that lack the basics for a conducive teaching and learning environment? Does more effort need to be placed on a better-coordinated approach to use private funds to unlock government’s spend?

The majority of South African learners in township and rural schools continue to learn in settings that reflect their deplorable poverty even after the democratic dispensation. The current system does not recognise the urgency of the need for redress, especially spatial redress – most township and rural schools were built pre-1994. Were these schools built for the “success” of the black child? We need to interrogate the architectural intentions of these schools. We need a system that actively works to dismantle colonial and apartheid legacies. 

How may this be accomplished? The school must resemble “opportunity and success” to the African child. This can be done through investments in the infrastructure of their schooling, both physically and otherwise.

We have seen, even if it is on a minor scale, what is possible when there are proper investments and redefinitions of space and architecture in rural and township areas. Two examples are The Centre of Science and Technology (Cosat), in Khayelitsha, Western Cape, and Nyanga High School in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape. 

Established in 1999, Cosat was at some point the only township school in South Africa to offer the subject Advanced Programme Mathematics – the school is Khayelitsha’s flagship school, which has in past years consistently achieved great results. In the 2021 National Senior Certificate exam Cosat received an award for being the best performing quintile three school in the areas of Mathematics and Physical Sciences. 

Nyanga High School has in the past years come out as South Africa’s top rural school, producing impressive results. Although built in 1990, small face-lifts took place in recent years.

Both these excelling schools exist in poverty-stricken contexts, where many of their beneficiaries are faced with many socio-economic challenges – yet they continue to be among the highest performing schools in our country. These schools are beautiful; they are well-maintained. They have beautiful fields and gardens, and well-resourced classrooms. The space is clean and beautiful. The space reflects success and opportunity to learners. There is an active effort to make the space these pupils learn in as comfortable as possible. The space encourages the pupil to learn, its beauty and the effort put into the school’s upkeep reflect how valuable the learner is. 

I acknowledge that our education system is riddled with many problems, however, I’m not implying that a physical rebuild of the school will result in better outcomes. I am simply attempting to highlight an aspect of education that is rarely discussed, particularly in terms of academic outcomes, namely space. Many factors contribute to our country’s poor educational outcomes, and I hypothesise that one of them is the physical environments in which our students are educated.

As a country that would like to be at the forefront of leading educational change, we must realize that the appearance of a school reveals a lot about what goes on within the school. The under-served communities of South Africa need schools that reflect their potential, with resources that maximise their educational capabilities. We owe South African education and its beneficiaries, the pupils, the space that is most suitable to transform the state of our lives and our world, a space that affirms their value.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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