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Exploring school underperformance in the context of rurality : an ethnographic study.

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After decades of democracy, South Africa (SA) is still a country that is characterised by huge inequalities and socio-economic challenges which are intense in most rural areas. As microcosms of a larger context, rural schools tend to bear the brunt of numerous challenges as they have to cope with poor infrastructure, scarce resources and under-qualified teachers. In spite of the many challenges rural schools experience, the country has adopted an accountability systems approach that uses examination results in measuring school performance, thereby ignoring the contextual factors that rural schools face. This study sought to explore and understand the notion underperformance in a secondary school in the rural Ilembe District in KwaZulu-Natal from the perspectives of learners, parents and teachers. Guided by the propositions derived from theories of underperformance and of rurality, the study was located within an interpretive paradigm and utilised the qualitative approach to research. An ethnographic design involving observations, interviews and document analysis was utilised as it was important to capture the experiences, interpretations and meanings that participants gave to school underperformance in their particular contexts. The findings suggest that there is a disjuncture between educational policy, schooling and contextual factors afflicting particularly rural schools. In essence, participants’ perspectives on school underperformance were influenced by a number of contextual factors; however, existing national education policy tends to ignore not only what happens within the rural school, but also the context in which the school is located (i.e., its rurality). The factors that informed the perspectives of the participants can be categorised into: 1) factors within the school such as the school context or location (rurality), learning prospects, the values and standards that rural people attribute to schooling, and curriculum relevance; 2) perspectives on the relationship among the rural household, the community and the school; and 3) perspectives on the role and value of schooling in a rural setting. The study therefore argues that approaches used to measure performance or underperformance must take into consideration the context/place in which such schools are located. Moreover, educational policy and decision making should place rural inhabitants at the forefront of educational planning. In order to address school underperformance in rural areas, the study advocates an improved theoretical lens in the form of a place sensitive approach which will engender understanding of this phenomenon. Such an approach would put context/place at the centre of educational analyses and allow for conciliation between policy, schooling and contextual factors.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2013.


Teaching--Rural schools--KwaZulu-Natal., Education, Rural--KwaZulu-Natal., Rural schools--KwaZulu-Natal., Educational tests and measurements--KwaZulu-Natal--KwaDukuza., School improvement programmes--South Africa., Theses--Education.