Supporting Struggling South African Schools With Online Learning

Hatfield Christian School serves 730 students on an expansive campus shared with a big modern evangelical church in Pretoria, South Africa. Hatfield’s mission is, “Training leaders to serve nations.” About 5% of the students at the mission-focused school are on scholarship. Student benefit from strong academic and extracurricular programs.

Given the dire condition of education in South Africa and the pivotal condition of the young democracy, Executive Principal Graeme Holloway wanted to do more to extend Hatfield’s impact. At the iNACOL Symposium, Hatfield strengthened ties with Greg Bitgood from Heritage Christian Online School in British Columbia and Greg was willing to help.

By aligning Heritage content to South African curriculum and adding content, Holloway’s team created Hatfield Online to support home school parents and struggling public schools. Holloway recruited corporate sponsors and donors to support the public school outreach effort.  

They started in Soweto and Mamelodi, former townships west of Johannesburg and east of Pretoria respectively. Math and science teachers were given laptops, access to the online content and training. Mentor teachers visit each classroom every other week. The combination has improved math and science passing rates on national exams.

Hatfield now supports 48 underprivileged public schools across South Africa. Where computer and internet access allows students to have access to the online curriculum.

Early results are promising with big gains in math and science proficiency rates for schools in the program two and three years. Individual student success stories have been inspiring. Watch this:

Trip report. Three Mamelodi secondary schools working with Hatfield Online are simple buildings strung together in open campuses that take advantage of the beautiful climate. While the campus grounds are reasonably well maintained that isn’t true of classrooms which have old and assorted furniture and equipment. Science labs that may have been functional 20 years ago are in disrepair. Small inoperative computer labs are filled with old equipment.

Students wear uniforms and are generally well behaved and compliant. Ninth grade classes are crowded; smaller upper division classes point to a substantial dropout rate.

The best instruction in the three schools was provided by teachers partnering with Hatfield Online; it was didactic and content-centric. Students took notes and recalled answers. The digital curriculum helped teachers explain electric circuits, biological systems, and compound interest. The Hatfield trained teachers appeared confident and knew their content.

In other classrooms we observed chalkboard lectures and ancient textbooks– more chaotic and less engaging.

The test focused system culminates with a matriculation exam that determines graduation (with 30% proficiency cut off) and eligibility for tertiary education. Parents choose high schools based on “matric” passing rate.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. English is the language of instruction but it is often the second or third language for students—and teachers.

The simple intervention of providing quality curriculum, teacher training, and ongoing mentoring is making a big difference for most students in the partner schools.

For more check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Mark Beadle

Two good men with vision and passion for others!

Gordon Robideau

Changing the world one student at a time. Well done Hatfield!

Greg Bitgood

Tom thank you for covering this important project. This is an example of how we can re-purpose our online resources into ways we never imagined. Hatfield's system is also an amazing tool for Professional Development with these teachers. This is also an idea that can scale at the fraction of the costs compared to other education interventions in Africa. It has been one of our greatest privileges as a school program to work with Graeme and his team.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Greg, we saw your courses making a big difference in African classrooms!

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