The principal who led his school to a 100% matric pass rate

Riyaadh Najaar is the principal of Spine Road High School in Mitchell’s Plain. Last year, he saw something he had waited 39 years for – his school received a 100% matric pass rate, and it was the only township school in the Western Cape to do so. Najaar spoke to RA’EESA PATHER about his school, his students, and the teachers who helped make this dream a reality.

They say teaching is stressful, but I don’t agree. If you love what you do, how can it be stressful?

When I saw we got a perfect pass rate, the first thought that came to my mind was now I can retire. I was very emotional because we’ve missed it on so many occasions. But last year, we had a 97% pass throughout the school, which is the highest we’ve ever had. I was very happy. The rewards are so great: to see that teacher’s smile and the tear in the parent’s eye when their child passes.

Parents have to care about putting food on the table – that’s their priority. Education can’t always be first on their minds. Our teachers make the difference. We’ve got some of the greatest teachers here that I’ve ever come across.

It takes a long time to find good teachers. Our interview process is a little different. We want the teacher to teach, while we sit and watch. The application of the lesson is the most important part: I want to see how the children understood the lesson. With maths and science, we need to be thoroughly convinced that the teachers are right, because if they mess up in the early grades, it continues later. Children must love the subject.

In the past eight to nine years, there’s been a real change. Years ago, it was terrible. I had to be really forceful with regards to smoking dagga (marijuana) and taking drugs. If we suspected a child was using, we’d ask the parent to take the child for a drug test, and if it came back positive, we’d ask them to put the child in a rehab programme. A month after the programme ended, we would test the child, and if it came back positive, we would ask the parents to keep the child at home until they bring us that negative test. There’s no soft approach to that situation.

Today, we have children whose parents were at the school, and those parents learnt from the boundaries we set for them while they were here. We can see the difference: now there’s been an increase in the quality of education and also the calibre of the students. They want to be here, they want to work hard and follow the standard.

Our matrics are here at 7  o’clock in the morning, doing physics and maths. In winter months it’s tough with the rain and cold, but they must be here. It’s extra work for them, but the teachers sacrifice their family life in order be here early and give to our children.

When the school achieves, we get remunerated and then we buy equipment for class. Even now, from our awards last year, we got R50,000 from the Western Cape Education Department for our results. So, it immediately goes into buying resources.

There’s a teacher we have who teaches maths only through the use of technology. Everything is visual – it’s not just chalk and talk. The children see everything being divided, and the angles dancing, so it’s exciting for them.

spine road high

The one problem that we see is the lack of human resources at the poor schools. A school like Spine Road has 1,350 learners, but if we had been a Model-C school we’d probably have a staff of close to 70 teachers. We have 40. We’re not going to use that as an excuse, but it’s the reality.

All the children are from Mitchell’s Plain. Seventy percent of them are from Tafelsig, which is the area with probably the highest teenage-mortality rate in South Africa. More than 60% of the students come from single parents, which is a challenge in itself. These are mostly mothers, and the absence of a father impacts greatly on children. But we can make a difference. We have to, otherwise we would be failing our profession and also the community at large.

This year, we have 300 matrics – it’s a massive group. The average is between 36 and 45 learners to a class. It’s big, but we cannot afford to employ governing-body teachers. Our school fees are R1,500 for the year, and we get 60% of that.

But if those 45 children are disciplined, they can be taught. It’s a lot to ask from our teachers, but this is the reality. We cannot change the situation, so we need to be dedicated and just work hard. And our children need to do the same.

The children are up for it because they know that their only ticket out of their present circumstances is to get a good education and a quality pass. So, we instil that value – it’s not about passing, it’s about passing well.

We don’t ever allow them to think of blaming their parents, the government, or their circumstances for not achieving. We want them to set their sights as high as possible.  They don’t just want to pass matric, they want to go to university.

They need to believe that they can achieve, because coming from this background, when they see students who come from more affluent schools, it affects their self-esteem.

Last year, we received an award for the highest accounting average in the province. We’re competing with the best schools and beating them. Once you elevate these children’s self-esteem, the sky is the limit.

A perfect pass rate is something to be celebrated, but it’s also a basis to work from now to go further. We can’t rest on our laurels or be complacent. Our aim is to work towards 100% bachelor passes. We had 70% last year, but we want 100%.

– As told to Ra’eesa Pather.

– All images by Ra’eesa Pather.

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