During October, “UKSA” became the name that was used to describe the latest success of the Culcheth-2-Soweto Project. Created by Miss Olifant, a teacher at Matseliso High School, this word stands for the union of learning between our two schools – ours in the UK and theirs in SA, hence “UKSA”. Following seven years of hard work from everyone involved in the international links with Matseliso High School, our links are truly established. No longer does it feel like a “foreign visit” but more a return home to close friends and family. Relationships and bonds between both staff and students are strong and long-lasting.

11 Soweto Success - Applause for UKSA

If you are a regular reader of the Culcheth High School newsletter and have followed our work over the last seven years, you will know that the project began back in 2008 with initial visits of teachers between both schools. Since 2010, students at Culcheth have pledged to make an annual student exchange programme possible and have worked hard each year to deliver on this pledge. In this time, 65 students have travelled between the two countries, made possible by £64,000 being raised to fund this work. Before you even examine the work the students do when they travel, the sheer achievement of this fundraising is monumental. We know it would not be possible without the continued support, encouragement and promotion by our parents, friends, local businesses and the wider community and, on behalf of the whole team, we would like to say a huge thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do to support the work of students both here in Culcheth High School and over in Matseliso High School in Soweto.

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The most recent team of Culcheth-2-Soweto (C-2-S) students set off on their visit to South Africa on 11th October 2015. With an early flight from Manchester on a Sunday morning, excitement was high from both students and parents alike. Discussion on the plane journey focussed around what to expect: What will it be like when we are there? What will we see? How different will it be?

A lot of the students in this C-2-S team had previously hosted Matseliso High School students in their homes in July 2014 so, for many, this was the start of a journey to be reunited with good friends; friends that had become part of the family; cases filled with gifts and presents for friends on arrival. Such anticipation made the journey to South Africa seem long and arduous and everyone just wanted to arrive, but time soon passed and we arrived at Johannesburg airport.

The welcome in school on the Monday was warm and South African in style, with the Culcheth students bringing quite a lot of
excitement and joy. We were welcomed with kind words, singing, dancing and poetry, South African style.

Every day in school was different. Our students attended lessons, taught lessons and took part in many different activities. It didn’t take our students long to start spotting the differences between our two schools. From the first day in school, there was a lot of singing, dancing and socialising in the school yard, with South African games drawing in all the students quickly. With the chants of “there’s a fire on the mountain” being heard from all around, all students were totally engrossed in playing team games. Everyone felt welcomed and no one lacked the self-confidence to join in and play. Culcheth students were enraptured by the ‘games’ at playtime and the differences to lunchtimes back in Culcheth. Many discussions were had about why they don’t play games in their own lunchtimes and why peer pressures in the UK would prevent them from doing this; the conclusion was that this is such a shame and they are the ones losing out as a result.

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Mr Cushing, as the newest member of the staff team leading the C-2-S project, couldn’t wait to get stuck in and brought the whole school to a standstill when a spontaneous game of football broke out one lunch time (UK vs South Africa).  The pitch was a little awkward, playing around the trees and drainage ditches; but that didn’t stop the international competitive play for who could show the best footballing skills and footwork; and there was some seriously fast footwork from the South African players. The game was well played and well balanced with shots on goal from both sides and cheers in equal measure, whichever side scored a goal.  During one morning, all students attended a PE lesson Matseliso style as well, with singing, chanting and team games. Great fun was had by all.

It was a very proud moment to see our Culcheth students go into lessons and conduct peer-taught lessons to students at Matseliso. The common focus were lessons about the UK and being a teenager in the UK, as well as life at Culcheth High School. Our students had prepared lesson materials and scrapbooks to try to communicate to students at Matseliso just what life is like. It was a true pleasure to see these interactions, questions and conversations. Great learning, peer to peer.

Culcheth students were quick to see the differences between our two schools.  Immediately they were struck by the grading system and how students in South Africa do not naturally progress to the next year at school purely by age; they have to ensure that they pass the exams at the end of each grade to progress.

They also identified differences in school days, school years and school holidays.  From the start, Culcheth students were impressed by the self-confidence of Matseliso learners and the responsibility they take for their own learning.

During our stay at Matseliso, we met many inspirational students with powerful stories and important messages for us all. In one lesson, we met Constance. During the lesson, Constance explained to our students how the grading system at school worked.  She explained that last year she had been quite unwell and, as a result, she had missed some schooling. In front of her peers, she confidently described how her illness had left her a little slow to learn and she had not passed her exams at the end of Grade 11. She went on to describe how the teachers at Matseliso had met to agree she should be allowed to progress to Grade 12 as she had only just missed the required levels and this could be explained by her illness. Constance described how she had
politely declined this offer by her teachers and was repeating Grade 11; she explained how she wanted to earn her place in the next grade and be truly ready to take on the challenges of Grade 12. Our children were left speechless by this, saying that given the same circumstance, they are not sure they would have had the same strength and commitment.

Another student very close to all our hearts from this most recent visit is Ntendi Hilda Levi.  From the very beginning, it was clear that this young lady was very special. She welcomed everyone with real charisma and confidence.  She spoke with passion and motivation and made a connection very quickly with everyone.  Every time she spoke, everyone stopped and listened. Many of the students simply said “you can’t help but listen… everything she says is so powerful”. At Matseliso, Hilda is one of the LRC members (Learner Representative Council) and took full responsibility for organising the visit of Culcheth students, working alongside their teachers.

The “Big Conversation” is now part of the tradition of our school visits and this year was no less powerful. For over two hours,
approximately 40 students from both schools took part in a discussion and exchange of information. Students took turns to speak, ask questions and explain. Students addressed stereotypes, explored issues and learnt from each other. Both sides realised it is really easy to make generalisations and stereotypes and even where they thought there were differences; there was really much more common ground than they realised. Whether that be on issues of education, school attendance, effort and attitude to learning, family life, discrimination or bullying. But what was obvious to Culcheth students was how to deal with these issues. Matseliso students and “Sowetonians” approach everything with such positivity and determination. Nothing is a problem, never be put off. Treat all problems as challenges and all difficulties purely as hurdles to be overcome.

Outside of school hours, the students were given the opportunity to explore the city to enable them to learn about its geography, history and politics. As a group, we visited the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson Museum, Constitutional Hill and Nelson Mandela’s house. This enabled students to learn about the past and empathise with the population of Soweto and the events they had experienced.  As well as the museums and monuments to mark the events of the past, students were also given the opportunity to go on Safari and see some of the South African wildlife close up, even going into the Lion cub cage just before feeding time!

From speaking to the students, it is clear that one experience more than any other will stay with the students forever and that was a visit to Kliptown, a shanty town in the suburbs of Johannesburg. With no sewage facilities, electricity or schools for a population of 50,000 people, the challenges that this area faces were clear for our students to see. But what was really important for them to learn is that amidst this poverty there is also hope, happiness and triumph. The students spent a long time at a charity located in the centre of the settlement called SKY – Soweto Kliptown Youth, dedicated to improving the lives of some of the poorest and neediest children in Kliptown. SKY’s ambition is to provide shelter, encouragement and school uniform for these children to give them the start in the life that they need.

During our visit this year, the students made a donation of football shirts and fancy dress outfits to the charity and have come away with hundreds more ideas of other things they would like to do in the future.

Each day of the visit ended with reflection time, to share and discuss what the students had seen and learnt that day. The consensus of the group by the end of the week is that South Africa is a country to be proud of.

If you would like to find out more about our visit in October and our ongoing work, please visit our Twitter page @Culcheth2Soweto or read our blog Culcheth2Soweto.

Finally, the C-2-S team would like to thank all of the local businesses and members of the school community including PTA,
governors, teaching and support staff as well as some local residents who have all supported the work we have done. Without everyone’s support and encouragement, our work would not have been possible. In particular, special thanks go to Marks and Spencer, Croft Carnival Committee, JWS Waste, Adactus Housing, Culcheth Althletic (sponsored by Stott Holding) and many others, for their support towards our project in the last 12 months.

If, having read our story so far, you think you would like to or would be able to help us then please get in contact with us at school. We are always looking for new and imaginative ideas to raise the required funds. We are especially keen to make links with parents who work for companies that offer match-funding. In the past, this has been a helpful source of fundraising for the students but, at present, we do not currently having any match-funding links and would be keen to make some new connections.