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Teacher progression in a South African community school in an informal settlement

Written by: Stella LouisTina Bruce and Ian Bruce
10 min read

Description of the setting

In 2010, the Froebel Trust became linked to a community kindergarten for children aged one to six in an informal settlement in Soweto (South Africa). The kindergarten was established in 1991 by a member of the community who observed that during the day, when their parents went to work, children as young as 15 months roamed the streets, at serious risk of violence, emotional and drug abuse or being knocked down by trains (as the informal settlement is located adjacent to the train tracks). The kindergarten was intended to be a safe place for children to attend when their parents/families were at work. It catered for 200 children, aged one to six years, with approximately 40 children in each year class, with one member of the community looking after each of the classes.

Prior to 2010, a great deal of groundwork had been undertaken. The project was originally initiated by Professor Ian Bruce CBE in 2008 (seed-funded by the Lord Joffe Charitable Trust) to assess the need for, demand for or appropriateness of leadership training for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that could be offered in decolonised ways to members of the community, township leaders in particular. Decolonisation seeks to end the unrepresentative, inaccessible and privileged features of colonial education that result in the marginalisation of indigenous people (Atmore, 2013). Instead, indigenous knowledge and practices are included and given an equal and valued place in the education.

Addressing the challenge: Asset-based community development (ABCD)
This resulted in a training course being established at the University of Johannesburg, Soweto campus. The then principal of the community school we now work with was part of the first cohort of students, and she invited Tina and Ian Bruce to visit and observe. This they did on three occasions of one week each over two years, gathering thoughts, learning about and applying the asset-based community development approach (ABCD). Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) developed ABCD, which aims to emphasise the vital link between training for work and community development. They state (p. 13):

‘Every single person has capabilities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capabilities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well-connected to the people around them. And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making.’

ABCD draws on assets and resources located within the community as a starting point. It seeks to empower the community by encouraging the use of assets that they already possess. The work of Kretzmann and McKnight (2005) guided us to see the importance of paying attention to residents who may be marginalised in creating a school board and of connecting with the local homework club and youth project, women’s sewing and bead-work group, HIV group, the local childcare training college and Social Development Department inspectors, for example. ABCD chimes with the Froebelian approach to education. Bringing the two together supported us in meeting the challenge of developing a decolonised approach.

Offering a Froebelian approach without imposition

In order to practise a decolonised curriculum, we needed to ensure that we were equipping the staff to work in their community in ways that were right for the culture and requirements of the South African education system, such that they could make the decisions for themselves about how to use – or not – what we offered. We did not intend to transplant and impose a Froebelian approach onto a South African informal settlement – colonial attitude clusters are deep-seated and institutionalised, and we tried to be aware of and act on this. This meant that a great deal of observation and information-gathering was undertaken initially.
Central to Froebelian education is the avoidance of a deficit approach through building on the existing strengths of the staff, community and culture and developing trust. This meant that we needed to meet the challenge of creating unique and bespoke journeys in teacher progression so that staff felt valued and empowered.

Froebelian education, in essence

The Froebelian framework (Lilley, 1967; Bruce, 2012; Tovey, 2019) places great emphasis on the importance of teachers who are well trained to work with other people’s children. Froebelian education offers a flexible approach that begins where the learner (child or adult) is, and not where the learner ought to be. The aim is to build continuously on the strengths of the teachers and children in the community in which they work. (Froebel, in Lilley, 1967, p. 41).

‘I wanted to educate people to be free, to think, to take action for themselves.’

The Froebelian approach involves adults sensitively and appropriately offering freedom with guidance, helping children to engage with nature. Children are supported to understand themselves as unique individuals but also to locate themselves in relationship with others, family and community. They are guided to reflect and act in relation to the world beyond and the universe as a whole. Play is a powerful part of learning, an integrating mechanism through which children are able to use what has been learnt and understood from self-activity and physical, sensory and life experiences. The development of understanding through symbolic representations in creative and imaginative ways and engagement with nature and science, dance, music, drama, stories, poetry, models, drawings and, later, secondary symbols of reading and writing, notations of mathematics and music begins in literal forms, is deeply personal and deepens to become increasingly abstract and with the possibility for shared, conventional cultural symbols.

One of our main challenges was to offer Froebelian training as a resource that staff could draw on if they chose to, while working in the South African context in ways that were right for their community (Bruce and Louis, 2019). We aimed to avoid the pitfalls of a colonial approach by integrating the Froebelian framework with ABCD.

Using the Froebelian approach integrated with the ABCD approach as navigational tools

At the point where we aimed to meet the challenges encountered through combining ABCD and the Froebelian approach, as mechanisms through which to build on the strengths of the staff and community, Dr Stella Louis, part-funded by the Froebel Trust, joined the team. We were committed to meeting the challenge of focusing on assets, and not gaps and deficits.

We built on the rich heritage of song, dance, multilingualism, a garden with trees and the loyal staff. First languages included Zulu, Sotho, Tsonga, Venda and Xhosa. Children could switch languages to understand and communicate with each other. By seven years of age, most of them could speak three or four African languages and manage spoken English well.

We followed the Froebelian approach by building on the strengths identified, adding to the African-language songs with other English-language songs and stories. English is compulsory throughout the South African education system, with a requirement for it to be both spoken and written in lessons conducted in primary school, secondary and higher education. Until recently, children did not begin primary school until six years of age. Teachers are being trained so that Grade R children (five years old) are now gradually being transferred from non-statutory provision in NGOs or private provision, regulated by the Social Development Department, and in future located in primary schools under the Education Department.

Working in the community kindergarten with children aged between one and six, we used what was available. The Froebelian educational approach uses low- and non-cost materials (the Froebelian ‘Occupations’, nowadays labelled ‘workshop materials’, which include sand, clay, sticks, stones, slates and chalk, sewing, weaving, etc.). We introduced two sets of equipment: Froebelian wooden blocks for three-to-six-year-olds and multilingual books, including each story in English. The books were provided by the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) and funded by the Edinburgh Froebel Network. We kept the Froebelian tradition that the teachers need to experience and explore the materials and discuss their educational possibilities before using them with the children. Parents were paid a stipend to care for the children during sleep time in the afternoons in order to free the staff for training, which took place under the shade of a tree outside and lasted for eight days each visit. The parent volunteers were very supportive of this. The principal’s long-standing deputy and successor continues to encourage her staff in their training, resulting in steady teacher progression.

Knowledge and professional development

We have now been working in a community for over a decade where there was no tradition of gaining professional teacher training qualifications. Beginning where the teachers were in their practice, rather than focusing on deficits, meant that they relaxed and enjoyed engaging in practical work, speaking their home languages and using English, supported and empowered in taking these experiences into their work with children. We joined them in their classrooms. As they became confident through the Froebelian/ABCD training, we began to encourage enrolment in training for the South African Qualifications Framework. The David Montefiore Trust contributed much-appreciated funding to enable this.

The deputy headteacher, giving great support to the principal, and another member of staff chose to work together, and have transformed their classroom of three-to-four-year-olds and the way in which children play on the veranda and garden. They use whole-group-work for song, dance and storying and make small groups for sewing, wooden block play, etc. At first they assigned children to materials through rotation but now they are confident enough for children to have more freedom in selecting drawing on slates, sewing, wooden block play, enjoying the multilingual book corner or pretend play in the home corner, etc. They have integrated Froebelian training with what they have learnt in the South African training, and have achieved South African Qualifications to teach ‘Birth to Four’.

Another member of staff has qualified to teach ‘Birth to Four’ and Grade R (five to six years). When visited by her tutor to see her practice, she gained 90 per cent for her practicum and the tutor took away some ideas. On graduating, she was selected as one of three out of 36 candidates to teach in a primary school. When she has more experience and has finished her current B.Ed studies, she plans to become a tutor training teachers. She helps the community school staff, coaching them in their assignments for the South African Qualifications.

In 2017, the principal and three other members of staff co-presented workshops with us at the International Conference that we organised with PRAESA in Cape Town, ‘What shall we do with the children on Monday?’. This was funded by Unicef, the Department for Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Froebel Trust. Administrative support was given by the Centre for Early Childhood Development. The regional inspector for Soweto attended and enthusiastically facilitated a similarly arranged local conference in Orlando West. This time it was entirely led by the principal and her staff, with us as backstage support. This resonates with Froebel’s vision ‘to educate people to be free, to think, to take action for themselves’. Staff had developed from participating cautiously in Froebel/ABCD training, to presenting workshops at a national conference with our team, and later to presenting and leading workshops at a conference organised with the regional inspector in Soweto.

During the global pandemic, we continue to keep in touch using WhatsApp. Two more staff will qualify to teach ‘Birth to Four’ and Grade R in primary schools next year. Others are working their way through the training for the ‘Birth to Four’ qualification.

What have we learnt about teacher progression?

We were guided in addressing the challenges that we identified and addressed by the way in which the Froebelian framework chimed with the asset-based community development (ABCD) approach. Using the two together gave us ways forward such that we could develop an approach to education that encouraged teacher progression and supported children’s learning.

The need to undertake groundwork, building the picture and context, is the first step. The second is to encourage staff to identify their strengths, building on and giving value to what they can do, rather than what we think they ought to do. After a decade, the school has a group of confident practitioners who can articulate and share their work with other settings, and who can organise local conferences to support their communities with a wider reach. A further outcome is a stable group of teachers who embrace training because they enjoy learning. This influences the way in which they work with and encourage the children to enjoy their education.


Atmore E (2013) Early childhood development in South Africa – progress since the end of apartheid. Journal of Early Education 21: 8–11.

Bruce T (ed) (2012) Early Childhood Practice: Froebel Today. London: SAGE.

Bruce T and Louis S (2019) Froebelian work in South Africa. In: Bruce T, Elfer P and Powell S (eds) The Routledge International Handbook of Froebel and Early Childhood Practice: Re-articulating Research and Policy. Routledge: London, pp. 96–104.

Kretzmann J and McKnight J (1993) Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Towards Finding and Mobilising a Community’s Assets. Chicago: ACTA.

Kretzmann J and McKnight J with Dobrowolski S and Puntenney D (2005) Discovering Community Power: A Guide to Mobilising Local Assets and Your Organisation’s Capacity. Northwestern University: Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

Lilley I (1967) Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from his Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tovey H (2019) Froebel’s principles and practices today. London: Froebel Trust. Available at: (accessed 9 December 2020).

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