Every matric pass rate a school achieves is a result of hard-work, dedication and in some cases – extreme pressure placed on students through measures implemented by ambitious headmasters. The Memezelo High School in Soshanguve Township is no different.
According to concerned pupils and educators, the matriculants at the school have been locked up in classrooms at night and compelled to study. This all happened, according to the pupils, with little adult supervision and scarce resources. This program, which has come to be known to the students as ‘the lock-in’’, was allegedly conceptualised and implemented by the current principal Prince Maluleke. Inside Education verified these allegations by speaking to three Memezelo matriculants and two educators who did not want to be named, out of fear of victimisation.
The three students said they were unhappy with the program Maluleke abruptly put in place in a bid to top the 91% pass rate achieved by the school’s matric class of 2016.
20-year-old Songezo Kubeka* is one of the students who has been sleeping in a locked class for close to two weeks. He said “the lock-in” program was setting matriculants up to fail.
“It’s really compromising us as matriculants because instead of studying and working towards good marks, students are partying it up and drinking”.
According to Kubeka, four classrooms were set up for the matriculants to study and sleep in.
“There are two classrooms for girls and the other two have been allocated for the boys. We all sleep there cramped into one place”.
Kubeka said his parents knew and were in full support of the principal’s program.
“The principal did a good job of convincing our parents that we will produce good marks if only we stay at school. He had a big meeting with our parents and he promised that we will be well taken care of.”
But the matriculants argue that they weren’t properly cared for.
According to 18-year-old Slindile Phiri*, the students slept on sponges and blankets that they were requested to bring to the school.
“It’s even worse in the morning when we have to bath. We use kettles to boil the water and bath in little containers. We have to bath in full view of other students, sometimes in empty classrooms,” Phiri said.
The sleeping conditions were not the only challenge Slindile said made her unhappy. It’s extremely difficult to study too. She said some students made a noise while others attempted to study.
“Usually some kids sing at night when they are bored…that time we can’t study. Some of them even play music with the smartboard, it’s really difficult,” said Phiri.
The spy camera footage that Inside Education is in possession of supported Slindile’s claims. The video shows students singing outside the room – blankets, bags and books everywhere. The video also shows how some students were watching a movie using the smart board.
Thabiso Mangena* said the principal didn’t start out like this. At first, it served as a tool for the students to sit and study together.
“After the principal saw our low marks in June he has been crazy with his plan. He said we should rather sleep inside the school and stay here,” said Mangena.
Mangena said, in the beginning, the principal never locked the classroom but after students were caught having a party he barred learners from moving freely.
“The next morning after the party the principal was mad that some learners were drinking and having a party at night, so he said he was going to lock us in. You can’t go anywhere if you want to go to the toilet, or have an emergency. No one can go out,” Mangena said.
All the learners said the lock-in was particularly stressful for a pregnant pupil. She was allegedly treated the same as the other learners irrespective of her pregnancy.
“We were worried that something could happen to her…she sometimes complained about the pain of sleeping on the floor, she didn’t like it like it at all”, said Mangena.
The teachers were more worried about incidences of sexual activity that took place at the school. Inside Education spoke to two teachers on condition of anonymity. They said some learners came to them to report the sexual activity. The teachers said upon further investigation, some students confessed to having sexual intercourse inside the classroom.
Mangena, one of the students we spoke to, said although the students were initially separated based on gender, some boys would find ways of sneaking into the girls’ section.
“What I know is that they would do that at night. But in the morning the caretaker would find used condoms while cleaning and nothing would happen,” Mangena told Inside Education.
Many asked why the students slept at the school if the principal was not forcing them to. They could choose not to stay behind after the last school bell for the day. The answer had a lot to do with the pressure to perform well. Many of them felt they could not disrespect the advice given by the principal, which they said, was more like an order than anything else. Many of them were also told by their parents to do as they were told.
“My mother believes what the principal is doing is right. Yes we are not forced but we will get rejected by the principal and some teachers for not participating in the program” Mangena said.
“We sometimes attend classes very tired in the morning because we don’t sleep at night. My parents said I should be here, that it’s the right thing to do but I think it’s really going to have an effect on my studies” said Phiri, who is anxious about her future.
“I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to get space in university. What the principal has done is going to affect me and my chances of studying at varsity”
The hunt for a place at a leading university in the country appears particularly relentless. Depriving matriculants like Slindile, Thabiso and Songezo proper treatment by adding the pressure of competing academically at all costs, could be the metaphorical straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Guiding and supporting them to be happy and stable as they go through academic challenges must be our number one priority as a country.