Prince Albert, a small town in the dry Karoo region of South Africa’s Western Cape province, is where local resident Helene Smit founded PASS in 2017. Many young people in South Africa fall out of the formal school system due to problems such as poverty, difficult home situations, drug use and the accompanying behavioural disorders. Realising that without alternatives they often ended up on the streets and involved in criminal behaviour, Helene founded a small school where some of these youngsters could learn basic social and technical skills. Currently 15 boys aged between 14 and 20 years attend classes and lessons from 8am to 1pm on weekdays. Breakfast and lunch is provided as most of them don’t get regular meals at home. The learners are supervised by teachers Rodine Barends, who oversees basic and philosophical subjects, and Kenneth Myburgh, who runs projects and practical lessons. In daily discussions learners are asked about their feelings, attitudes and home lives. “In this way we make it clear to them that they have someone they can turn to for all their problems. Many pupils come from very difficult backgrounds, which requires a very specific and individual approach for each pupil.
“In our school we give everyone a chance, regardless of prior knowledge or history.”
“Anyone can learn if they feel safe enough to learn”
Helene Smit is the founder of the Prince Albert Skills School. In 2017 she compiled a report on life in Prince Albert which included the stories of several street youths. The confrontational circumstances of their lives made her realise that future prospects were dismal for many young South Africans. This prompted her to establish a shelter and education centre for street youths.
From the start Helene emphasised a safe and calm learning environment with the focus on the basic needs and psychological wellbeing of the young people. Given her background as a psychologist she certainly is the right person for the job, and today she still watches over the psychological wellbeing of both pupils and teachers.
Supported by the members of the Mondibel board, Helene is the director of the Prince Albert Skills School.
Before the creation of PASS Rodine worked in Prince Albert’s POP Centre (Path Out of Poverty). When Helene asked her to teach at PASS she did not hesitate and from Day One Rodine has been the face of the school. She gives a wide range of general and philosophical lessons and also takes the boys to the library and swimming pool, gives computer lessons, and more. Additional technical lessons have been given by interns.
Besides her duties as a teacher Rodine also fetches learners from their homes, monitors their class attendance and discusses absenteeism with them if it occurs. She also does the shopping for meals provided at the school. She is always there for everyone and makes sure every student can attend classes with peace of mind.
When it was felt we should offer more and better technical education we looked around for a technically skilled colleague for Rodine, a role now filled by Kenneth Myburgh.
Kenneth has lived in Prince Albert for many years, attending school in the town and working for his father as a handyman. Kenneth got to know PASS after befriending Belgian students doing internships at the school. He’d been unemployed for a while and the interns asked if he would volunteer as a technical and sports assistant. Kenneth happily agreed and soon developed a good relationship with the students and Rodine. He devised some great technical projects and proved to be a natural at supervising students. When his internship ended in March 2020 we offered Kenneth a permanent job at the school.
He now provides very good daily technical lessons, has developed some woodworking projects, created a garden maintained by the students, and leads them in various renovation and maintenance jobs at the school. Kenneth also oversees sports activities, which are very important to the learners at PASS.
In recent years many young people have enjoyed the learning and training they have received at PASS. We try to get to know our students as well as possible and offer them the best possible tailor-made training programme. Every student writes his own story – here are profiles of some of them:
Ricardo has been a PASS pupil from the beginning. After a stay in a youth institution he was taken in by Helene who immediately saw the potential in this young man. He now works at Prince Albert’s weekly market as a coffee vendor and is our logistician at PASS, assisting the teachers with practical matters.
Johnwin came to the Skills School in January 2020 with little or no basic knowledge. He could not read or write but has incredible talent for sports – after joining our football team he soon felt at ease, and within a month he had learned the alphabet and now reads and writes at a solid basic level.
Jandre dropped out of school very young. We met him during our internship and he showed keenness to attend the Skills School. However he was too young but we taught him meanwhile to make candleholders out of tin, which he has been selling for the past two years. Since December 2020 he has been a student at PASS and has proven to be skilful and motivated and a quick learner.
Joshua had a very tough childhood and was difficult to handle when he arrived at PASS. He often argued and fought with others and was frequently absent from school. After several months of intensive psychological counselling Joshua began to feel more at home. For the first time in his life he felt that someone genuinely cared about him. At PASS he has blossomed into a responsible young man and now is a youth counsellor at the POP Centre (Path Out of Poverty).
The main goal of the project is to create independent, sociable and capable young people who are prepared for the world of work.
1. School infrastructure: sufficient and suitable accommodation
The current school building is a box the size of a one-car garage, provided to us by neighbouring Swartberg Hoërskool – just roomy enough for the pupils to sit around a table. There is also a small kitchen attached where they prepare their morning and afternoon meals. We have built a shelter next to the building where practical lessons take place, and as we have bought tools and materials we have built a fence around the school. There is also a shower and toilet next to the school and the boys’ clothes are washed weekly in our washing machine. Small gardens have been laid out within the enclosure allowing pupils to learn how to produce and cook their own fresh vegetables.
One of Kenneth’s first projects was to teach the pupils to make their own wooden lockers in which to securely store their personal belongings.
In time a new school building will be necessary, where we could welcome more young people and also offer girls this second chance. In addition to the building a technical school also needs high-quality working materials. One of our first achievements was the purchase of work tools for everyone — saws, screwdrivers, hammers, and several electrical tools. We also invested in bicycles so we can undertake out-of-school trips in a healthy and ecologically friendly way.
2. Crime prevention
Young people who are excluded from mainstream schools often end up on the streets, scrounging for money, food and whatever else they can find. This results in many vulnerable young people ending up doing crime. We want to get these young people off the streets as soon as possible and offer them a vision of a better future through a curriculum that focuses on their individual qualities and interests. To achieve this we have first to meet their basic needs. We offer them two meals a day, clothing and toiletries for basic hygiene. Only when they no longer have to worry about these things can they be open to learning new things. We also want to steer them away from crime by teaching them to understand that their actions have consequences.
3. Demand from the labour market
We ask local employers about their need for employees, then we select students who we believe could meet those conditions. After achieving some minimum objectives in our school the students are given the opportunity to do an internship with these employers
4. Tailor-made education
Each pupil receives an individual learning pathway towards predetermined goals that are set up in consultation with the pupil, based on their qualities and interests and the demand from local employers. The pupils follow a basic educational package supplemented by individual technically oriented lessons.
Pupils are divided into two groups according to their learning level. The groups change teachers daily so we can achieve a good balance between theoretical and practical lessons. In this way Rodine and Kenneth can adjust their lessons to the level of their target group.