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Almost a boss-boy: Farm schools, farm life and social opportunity in South Africa

Jackie Dugard, Abraham Mintoor, Muzi Ngwenya, Portia Nkosi & Stuart Wilson

Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of Witwatersrand

October 2005

SARPN acknowledges the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of the Witwatersrand as the source of this document.
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This report is the first output of an ongoing research project aimed at exploring the state of education for black children in South Africa’s commercial farming areas. Its focus is on the lived reality of children, parents and educators in South Africa’s farm schools and on the social roles played by farm schools in commercial farm labouring communities.

This edition of the report is a work in progress released for comment.1 It is intended to stimulate debate about South African farm schooling. It sets out the state of farm schools as we found them in two provinces and uncovers, in outline, the manner in which farm schools, as they stand, help sustain rural power relations inherited from apartheid. The findings we make are provocative, but are, in our opinion, justified by what we found in the 43 farm schools we visited in two provinces. While they are not representative of the total population of farm schools in any formal statistical sense, they amount to a fair representation of the state of South African farm schooling and raise questions which all those concerned with rural education have an interest in answering. Our conclusions and recommendations section in this edition of the report is deliberately sparse in order to encourage comment on and debate about the text.

At the core of the report is a research strategy which seeks to compare and contrast sets of farm schools in two provinces. The aim of the comparison was to establish the main external variables in terms of which farm school performance can be explained. We grouped these together under three themes. First, we considered the resources available to farm schools in each of the two provinces. Second, we considered the effectiveness of the provincial department of education in ensuring the implementation of school-based policies on governance (for example, ensuring the functionality of school governing bodies and eradicating corporal punishment), and in taking steps to ensure that farm children are able and encouraged to access public education (for example, by providing scholar transport and rolling out school feeding schemes). Third, we considered the social role played by the farm school in the broader farming community. This encompassed establishing the relationship between farm school, farm production and farm worker households. These broad themes informed our review of the available literature on farm schools, which underpins sections II and III of the report. They also informed our primary research across 43 schools in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga, the results of which are presented in sections IV and V.

We employed a qualitative, case-based strategy to investigate the themes and the links between them in each school. Each school was taken as a single interpretative whole. Semi-structured interviews with principals, educators and farmers were supplemented by focus groups with learners to draw out the perceived links between resources, policy management and implementation and social context on the one hand and educational achievement and social mobility on the other. In the Western Cape we interviewed provincial department of education officials responsible for rural schooling. Unfortunately, and despite repeated requests, no-one from the Mpumalanga department of education was prepared to discuss farm schools at length with us. From our brief conversations with several officials in the Mpumalanga department it appeared to us that no single unit or person at a senior level had specific responsibility for farm schools.

For the purposes of this study ‘educational achievement’ was defined as the educational progress made by farm school learners after leaving the farm schooling system. In common with the vast majority of farm schools nationwide, all those we visited were primary schools. Many only catered for their learners up to the end of Grade 3. Consequently, educational achievement was often measured in terms of progression to and through the secondary school grades. ‘Social mobility’ was defined as the frequency, range and quality of occupations achieved by farm school learners, beyond low-skilled agricultural labour. There are currently no quantitative data available on either the educational achievements or the social mobility of farm school learners, and most of the schools we visited did not keep detailed records of learner destinations. We were therefore required to rely on the reports of school governors and experienced teachers in gleaning this information. We recognise that a more detailed ‘tracer’ study across an appropriate sample of schools is desirable. We are considering such a study in future.

  1. The report was researched and written by Jackie Dugard, Abraham Mintoor, Muzi Ngwenya, Portia Nkosi and Stuart Wilson. Cover Photograph: Jьrgen Schadeberg. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at .

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