A giant Leap for education

John Gilmour has done impressive work for basic education in the Western Cape. Through his not-for-profit Leap Science and Maths Schools – with initial funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation – the school has achieved a matric pass rate of 94%, with 70% continuing on to tertiary-level education.

According to an article in the M&G (written by Barrie Terblanch), the results in Langa prior to the Leap School weren’t as promising. In 2003, about 650 learners wrote matric, of which 350 passed, and six achieved university exemption – although not one on higher grade maths or science.

In 2007, Gilmour opened a second Leap school in Guguletu followed by another in Alexandra, Johannesburg, last year.

Gilmour was 45 with two year-old twins when he quit his job as principal of a private school to set up Leap. And it wasn’t easy. “I think our colonial education in South Africa taught us to be cautious: look after your family, look after yourself, and help where you can, but charity begins at home,’’ he says.

He describes teaching charity cricket in Langa while working as a young teacher in Pinelands, a neighbouring suburb. “As a sports coach, here I am looking at the delivery of skills, skills, skills, thinking everything else will somehow transfer. And now I’ve been to funerals of those boys — shot while stealing, killed while driving drunk.’’

An idea developed based on a rejection of the notion that the poor cannot achieve academically and that cognitive and emotional development with develop coincidentally.

“It is a mistake to think that you can just cram kids’ heads full of stuff and they’ll be fine,” he says. “The whole entitlement issue in this country is because we assume that if we create opportunity, kids know what to do with it.’’

Gilmour regards his students’ voices as more powerful than the adult voice, and uses it as an educational tool.

Today, all 160 learners at the first Leap school in Pinelands attend a daily life orientation class where they discuss issues among themselves, including the school’s code of conduct. Classes are small, with about 16 learners per teacher, and double the time is spent learning science, maths and English compared with other schools – and the day is also longer than your average school day.

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