An ethnographic exploration of the day to day texture of the school life of poor children.
This study is an ethnographic exploration into the daily school life of learners at a former ‘Model C’ primary school. The primary school, named Good Hope School for the purposes of this study, was chosen because of its demographics as well as its geographic and social positioning in the Durban city area. It was attended by poor South African learners from the townships around Durban as well as refugee and migrant learners from various African countries who lived in the run-down neighbouring flats. Through a theoretical grounding in space and time the study explores how learners experienced their education and why they experienced it the way they did. The Grade Six learners of this school were central to the study and it is their complex life realities and interaction with their learning that was closely observed and analysed. The learning emerged as a complex combination of limited choices in a learning environment that was constrained by being underresourced, as well as the socio-economic problems of the surrounding neighbourhood. This thesis highlights the social tensions that existed in the urban living spaces of the learners and impacted on their lives at school. Poverty and urban social realities conflicted with learners’ identity constructs developed at school. It is in the urban spaces of their lives that inequality was experienced, reproduced and constantly reconfigured into learners’ identities. Multiple aspects related to disadvantage resulted in limited access to essential repertoires needed for school success. Good Hope School’s mission to teach learners within a regulative and ethical space was undermined by the complex realities of the learners’ poverty. Critical ethnography is the methodological approach used in this study, allied with actor network theory used as a toolkit to unravel the complex relationships that emerged between the time frames and spatial positioning of the learners in the multiplicated contexts of their lives. The study involved a daily observation and interview period over four consecutive months at the school. It also delved into the school’s colonial and apartheid era history. Photographic evidence, obtained through the use of a discreet SenseCam camera, was part of the large data collection aspect of the thesis which included historic official school logs, observations, interviews and historical testimony about the school and the surrounding area. Through a multiperspectival approach the study is able to pragmatically utilise the theoretical lenses of critical theorists. Whilst Lefebvre and Foucault provide the critical theoretical grounding for the study on the alienation and normalisation, Boltanski’s pragmatic approach serves as a guide to ensure that the views of the participants remain paramount in the analysis of the data. Pathologised identity constructs impact on learning and development in complex ways. The study suggests that the identity constructs of learners are laminated such that the outwardly seen veneer is but a representation of what broader society accepts as normal and desirable. The thesis posits the view that learning is compromised and suppressed in various ways, as the learners’ social lives, positioning and status impacted on their learning in a multifaceted web of overlapping settings. The school, with its majestic history and experience of more than a hundred years, has transformed in ways not many have understood or acknowledged. Through its efforts the school has provided hope to the poor community it serves. This thesis posits that the social context of learners’ lives impact on their learning. Although the children expressed hope for an affluent future, the evidence in this study shows that it is more than likely that the children from poor communities are trapped in a trajectory of socio-economic disadvantage, impacting on their future education and job opportunities.