Growing Up in the Country
Bedford shows us the best of platteland schooling
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In the Eastern Cape, that’s just what happens at the Bedford Country School
Way before dawn, I wake to the joyous squealing of pigs and look outside my window on the top floor of The Duke of Bedford Inn.
There they are, this little family clutch of platteland porkers, crossing the main road in the rain. An emergency vehicle arrives, waits for them to saunter across and then continues its rush towards Adelaide in the east.
But one of the spotted pigs is lagging.
I think it’s found something delicious in the gutter. The mom pig leads the rest of her offspring past the Farm Butchery, keeping a brisk pace and averting her eyes. The rear piglet, however, is in danger of getting lost.
I call my wife Jules. “Help! We have to save the pig!” She emerges onto the balcony wildeyed in her pyjamas and, together, we cheer the little fellow on. “Go pig! Straight over! Now go left!” Finally it seems to get the message and snuffles off in the general direction of where its clan was last seen.
Two hours later and two blocks north, Jules and I are outside Bedford Country School, watching the morning drop-off. It’s 7.30am, and vehicles are converging here from deep in the Baviaans Valley, the Winterberg, Adelaide and Somerset East.
The children wave to us as they pass, confident and a damn sight happier-looking than we were at primary school, when faced with a new day in the classroom.
The rather imposing building they’re entering began life in the late 1800s as the Bedford Public School. It was then turned into a Presbyterian manse, then a restaurant and then a B&B.
Thanks to the generous donation of two hunters, it became the Bedford Country School in 2009, beginning with only 35 children from pre-school to grade three. Now it has 80 children and classes have grown to grade five, with plans to expand to grades six and seven in 2020.
Teachers are hand-picked and have no more than 15 learners in their classes. It mainly serves the district farming community, young parents who prefer to have their kids closer to home than sending them to distant boarding schools.
When we meet headmistress Ammie Pringle, she explains, “We make a point of keeping the classes small, and we know our children well. If there are any problems we pick them up immediately.”
The townsfolk are immensely supportive of the school, she adds. “We have a Family Fun Weekend in March every year, when we do trail running, mountain biking and adventure biking to raise money for the school. It’s a weekend for the family and has been steadily growing every year since its inception in 2016.”
The townsfolk pitch in as well, in all kinds of ways. Deputy principal Charles Brett, who for ten years managed country estates in England, rents out classy art films and donates the money to the school. “Last year alone, we raised R10 000,” he will tell you with pride.
And should you relocate to Bedford village, the residents will quickly find out exactly what
your skill set consists of and co-opt you into a school learning programme or a show and tell – platteland style. That’s why the Bedford Country School offers art, music, cultural and environmental excursions, rugby, swimming, hockey and gymnastics.
And not one of the grade three learners will ever forget the very gentle lesson that school gardener Johnson Kohla (86) taught on the martial art of Xhosa stick fighting.
Ammie takes us to the hall, where the grade two children are doing NeuroNet.
This is a sequence of coordinated movements, each child with one socked and one bare foot, to help increase motor and cognitive skills.
“When they do a sequence for the first time on a Monday they are struggling, but by Friday it’s effortless. We started it a year ago, and the teachers say it definitely makes a difference with the children.”
We wander through the classrooms. The pre-school boys are ‘driving’ their milk crates, while others are threading autumn leaves onto long strings. At break, the children climb trees, roll down grassy banks, scrabble about in the sandpit and fiddle with the tools on the ‘tinker table’. Not one is playing with a smartphone. There is not a scrap of litter anywhere and they avoid sugary tuckshop offerings. There are no fizzy drinks – only water.
Generally the sport teams are made up of various grades. “And there is only one team, no A team or B team,” says Ammie. “This gives the children confidence and we can easily see who has talent in a particular sphere. Each child has a role to play.”
In the kitchen, the grade fours and fives are busy around a table, rolling dough, grating cheese and readying the ingredients
for pizzas. They are simultaneously learning conversational Afrikaans and doing fractions. “Our kids use the kitchen all the time. If you smell it and taste it, you will never forget that lesson,” says Ammie. “They do quite a bit of baking. It forms part of the everyday curriculum.”
Upstairs, local artist Ken Kropf is teaching children how to make cats out of clay. He’s rather impressed with their talents.
Ammie sits in her office and is part of all of it. She can smell the cheese, garlic and bacon of the pizzas and can hear someone scraping through their 17th violin lesson.
Over the years, Jules and I have found all manner of good private schools thriving in the countryside – places like the Waterberg Academy in Vaalwater, Albert College in Prince Albert, Clifton Preparatory in Nottingham Road, Greyton House, Orange Grove Schools outside Tarkastad. And now also Bedford.
Do country-raised kids grow up more confident and well-grounded than their city counterparts? We’ve asked all sorts of interest parties – parents, teachers, trainers and education experts – this question.
They often agree, and mention a number of factors like the absence of consumer distractions, growing up close to nature, and more personal time spent with parents and friends from various age groups. Then there’s the village ethos. Everyone knows everyone else, and there’s always an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ close by.
Another of the great advantages to schooling in the countryside is quick access to excursion options. Bedford Country School pupils, for instance, are taken deep into the neighbouring Baviaans Valley, where they visit old heritage farms and spend quality time in the outdoors. The cultural offerings of Grahamstown are less than an hour’s drive to the south.
Estate agent Abigail White says the school has had a noticeable effect on the fortunes of the town. “It’s no longer seen only as a place to retire to. Now we’re attracting new energy and younger families to Bedford. It’s also a great thing for the new generation of farmers that are coming back to Bedford and the surrounding areas.”
As we leave, Jules points out some country wisdom on a classroom notice board, ‘Work hard. Play nice. Stay kind’.
Map reference F6 see inside back cover
BELOW: A bold group of spotted pigs crosses the main road in Bedford, averting their eyes from the Farm Butchery.
ABOVE: Music teacher Michaela van Blerk and pupil Gabby King. ABOVE RIGHT: Teacher Kathleen Brand combines the teaching of fractions with the garlicky bacon pizzas made by the grade four and five pupils. BELOW: Grade 00 teacher Phindi Patosi and her class of Busy Bees, caught while ‘driving’ their milk crates. RIGHT: Teacher Sam King and her grade two pupils. Small classes allow teachers to pay full attention to pupils. FAR RIGHT: James Hobson, Samantha Wienand and Lithemba Makinana in front of the old NG Kerk manse, now the school hostel.
ABOVE LEFT: Gardener Johnson Kohla has even been recruited to give the children an experience of Xhosa stick fighting. ABOVE RIGHT: The Bedford Country School children are often taken on field trips to neighbouring farms and nature reserves. Famous lepidopterist and farmer Ernest Pringle’s farm Huntly Glen is a favourite. BELOW: It’s clear from any social gathering around Bedford that young families are returning to the platteland, and part of the reason is that there is a good school available.