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.

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