South African LEAP Schools Make Educational Leaps


ATLANTA, Georgia — LEAP Science and Maths Schools began as a tutoring program for marginalized students, led by John Gilmour, in 1990. In order to further meet the needs of the communities in which it worked, LEAP schools expanded over time. In 2004, Gilmour opened the first full-time LEAP school for grades 8-12. There are currently six South African LEAP schools providing disadvantaged children with quality education.

Poverty and Inequality in South Africa

Despite decades of democracy, the World Bank recognized South Africa as the most economically unequal country in the world in 2019. This reflects in the education system. The most impoverished South African children do not have access to the same educational opportunities as those with financial privilege.

This educational discrepancy is a legacy of apartheid’s Bantu Education Act, which wrote inequality into law. Resources and funding distribution were based on the absurd notion that one race was more deserving than another. While the post-apartheid democratic constitution enshrines the right to equal education, the disparity still persists almost entirely to the disadvantage of black students.

According to Nic Spaull, a senior researcher at the University of Stellenbosch, the top 20% of schools in South Africa score significantly better than the bottom 80%. This gap is wider than in almost any other country. The Economist notes that white children are 10 times more likely than black children to score high enough in school to study engineering.

South African LEAP Schools

LEAP schools are attempting to break the cycles of poverty and inequality within South Africa. According to the website, LEAP strives “for the positive transformation of communities through the meaningful education of children from those communities.” The students who attend LEAP schools are all from disadvantaged communities around South Africa. Students are required to take math and science as school-leaving subjects. This will give students more opportunities to continue their education after school. School fees at LEAP are minimal. While LEAP receives some government funding, the schools rely almost entirely on donations.

Quality of Education

National school attendance is high at 98%, according to the 2018 Child Gauge Report. However, the quality of the education is not nearly adequate. Thousands of schools do not have access to basic facilities such as properly constructed buildings, libraries, sports fields, internet, sanitation, textbooks and laboratories.

Not only do all six LEAP campuses have adequate resources for the school program but they also prioritize students’ mental and emotional resources. The school programs encourage self-awareness, confidence, healthy life choices and pride in cultural identity.

Underqualified Teachers

Classrooms in South Africa are typically overcrowded. On average, the ratio is usually 35 students to one teacher. According to the Economist, a 2007 study found that 79% of fourth and fifth-grade math teachers scored below the expected student grade. In addition, as many as 10% of South African teachers are absent on any given day.

LEAP believes that teachers are the foundation of successful education. It prides itself on employing qualified teachers from the community who cater to each student’s individual needs. The organization started the LEAP Future Leaders Program to produce a new generation of qualified teachers who can take their experience into other marginalized areas and continue to improve South Africa’s school system.

School Completion Rate and Tertiary Education

In 2019, the grade 12 pass rate was 81.3%. However, accounting for the dropout rate, as few as 38.9% of South African students completed their education in 2019. Factors relating to poverty are often the cause of students dropping out. Feelings of hopelessness and discouragement from repeating a grade also contribute. An improved school system can mitigate this.

Of those students who complete secondary schooling, only a small number go on to tertiary education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that only 6% of 25-34-year-olds in South Africa had a tertiary qualification in 2018, the lowest out of all the OECD’s partner countries.

Having a tertiary education in South Africa can mean the difference between unemployment and employment. According to the OECD, 85% of South African adults between 25 and 64 with a tertiary qualification are employed, compared to 55% of South Africans with only an upper secondary qualification.

The Success of South African LEAP Schools

LEAP consistently outperforms schools at the national level. In 2019, LEAP achieved a pass rate of 93% across all six schools, three of which had a 100% pass rate. LEAP experiences a dropout rate of less than 6%, far lower than the national average of 49% in 2014. In 2018, 93% of LEAP graduates had jobs in fields like science, engineering and teaching.

Gilmour stated in LEAP’s 2018 Annual Report that “We are reimagining and working to build a new South African reality for our children to enable them to become engaged, caring, productive, connected global citizens and conscious agents of change.” The success of South African LEAP schools is evident in the numbers and in the personal stories of graduates. LEAP schools are giving hope to underprivileged children who might otherwise be lost in a system of inequality.

Emma Maytham
Photo: Flickr


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