‘WE always have a plan but we never aspire to be number one,’ says Mohamed Zafar Ahmed, principal of Al-Falaah College, in Springfield, Durban.
The institution was established in 1984 as a co-ed private Muslim primary and high school.
In 2016, Al Falaah emerged as the best performing school in South Africa in the matric examination.
The pass rate of the school was 100 per cent and 90 per cent of learners achieved aggregate marks over 70 per cent. In addition, 49 per cent achieved distinction aggregates. There were 291 subject distinctions with 4,1 distinctions per learner.
This success comes with hard work by both learners and teachers. However, Ahmed’s unique personal approach as manager of the school evidently contributed to its remarkable achievement.
He says his approach is never to compete against anyone other than oneself. Every learner is encouraged to perform two per cent better than his or her own best score.
In addition, after tracking the progress of the matric class of 2016 over a four-year period since grade 9, he was confident that the group had the potential to do exceptionally well.
‘You stretch people in a reasonable way,’ he says.
According to Ahmed, an integral part of the success in the formal results of the learners was their commitment to causes outside of schoolwork. Of these, he singles out charitable causes in which learners contribute to making 250 sandwiches daily for the poor.
Each learner gets an opportunity to come to school early to help make the sandwiches in order to physically participate in giving to the poor.
Another initiative is the transformation of World Teachers’ Day from the giving of meals and gifts to teachers to a form of sustained support for the poor.
The class of 2016 used the funds collected to dig two water wells for the poor in Sri Lanka through the agency of a local charity.
This kind of contribution is sustained indefinitely and is more meaningful for both learners and teachers than the conventional way of giving gifts that physically do not offer lasting benefit to the beneficiaries.
Ahmed says this approach to education has ‘exponentially raised the bar and created a culture of excellence’ in the school. It is also a culture that drives excellence in individual learners.
When asked what he finds challenging in the current schooling climate, Ahmed identified tuition as a problem that potentially undermines genuine education. He said the parents of leaners who typically struggled with Afrikaans, for example, often pay exorbitant fees to tutors whose intervention subverts a meaningful engagement with and understanding of Afrikaans as a second or third language.
With the aid of tutors, learners memorise essays for reproduction in examinations. This is likely to produce good results but not likely to lead to any meaningful understanding of the language.
This kind of approach to learning ill prepares a learner for challenges associated with conceptual thinking that requires independent intellectual application at university level. There is a short-term gain but no skills development for use in the long term.
Such learners are well schooled but not well educated he says. They often find the demands of university education overwhelming and some even drop out. However, there is great pressure on learners to seek tuition for fear of failing without this kind of support.
Ahmed says that, by grade 12, the learners ought to have developed a sound foundation for applying the basic mental and intellectual tools of learning and studying. It is a culture that is inculcated from the earlier years of schooling, and cannot simply be acquired in grade 12.