Design for education: the Vele example


To provide additional context for our Special Feature: Design for Education (Issue 32), earthworks asked East Coast Architects’ Steve Kinsler about the various outcomes of Seven Fountains and Vele schools – projects we consider to be best practice in sustainable design for education.

Having already palmed in several accolades, Derek van Heerden and Steve Kinsler most recently (in May 2016) received the 2016 Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. The award is made annually by the LOCUS Foundation under the patronage of UNESCO to 5 architects.

The judges commented:

“The architects of East Coast Architects also work in rural areas. But in South Africa these are becoming depopulated and both this phenomenon and its flipside – the precarious city – are part of the same challenge. It is urgent to stem this rural exodus which is unsustainable in the long-term but there are no quick fixes. East Coast Architects’ long-term solution is to build schools which set an excellent example, in their construction, in their use of water and energy and in their organisation of collective life… These are microcosms in which young people learn through immersion.”

Here’s what we learnt from a Q&A session with Steve Kinsler:

Q1. Five years after Vele’s completion in 2011, has the school achieved some of the goals which it set out to?

The school has achieved its primary goals through:

Building relationships with the surrounding communities

Ongoing consultation with communities ensures buy‐in from local residents, many of whom are also employed by the schools.

Skills development programmes (e.g. workshops on permaculture and sewing) seek to increase the earning capacity of adults in the community, thereby improving the home lives of learners.

Developing partnerships with government and private enterprises

By developing sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with government (especially circuit and district offices that support the schools), we have been able to provide much needed support. In doing this, the Trust has been fortunate to benefit from the expertise and financial support of a number of public and private enterprises.

Teacher development

Teacher training to upgrade content knowledge and teaching strategies has been provided to the schools’ teachers, as well as to teachers from surrounding schools.

Bridging the digital divide

ICT strategies play an enormous role in bridging the digital divide in poorer communities.

The schools’ ICT centres are accessible not only to leaners, but also to members of the community, offering an excellent example of how these centres can be used to their maximum capacity.

The importance of the school environment

Architectural innovation at Seven Fountains Primary School and Vele Secondary School have resulted in buildings that are energy efficient and economical to operate while providing functional and enjoyable spaces for children to learn in – something’s that’s often overlooked in the design of school buildings. This has fostered an environmental awareness in learners who have gained skills and knowledge in areas such as food farming and the economical use and recycling of scarce resources (particularly water & energy), which they will hopefully carry with them into their communities beyond the school’s borders.

It’s also important to point out that these award‐winning buildings were built on the same budget as standard government schools.

Q2. Each of the projects in the Create Learning Spaces Programme had a five-year goal. Do you know how this is going?

One of the goals of the Creating Learning Spaces Programme was to stay involved with the school for a minimum of five years after completion of the construction of the school. This was done to assist the school in their transition to the new facilities and to provide support on the path to longer-term sustainability.

This goal has been achieved and the Trust is currently embarking on its exit strategy from both schools.

Q3. Which physical aspects of the design have been most effective?

The most effective physical aspects have been:

  • Site planning to assist community access to shared facilities
  • Passive solar design strategies
  • Green roofs
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Use of local materials particularly stone at Vele

Q4. Has the academic performance of the children improved?

Since our involvement at the school in 2009 there has been a steady improvement in the Grade 12 results:

2009: 38% pass rate

2010: 57% pass rate

2011: 83.4% pass rate

2012: 91.3% pass rate with 46 learners writing the Grade 12 exams and 42 passes.  There were 10 Bachelor passes and one learner achieved 4 distinctions (Physical Science, Life Sciences, Geography and Life Orientation) and she just missed a distinction in Maths (77%).

2013: 93% pass rate with 43 learners writing the Grade 12 exams 40 passes. Seventeen learners achieved Bachelor Passes allowing them entrance to university, along with 16 distinctions spread across the class of 2013 – one learner alone achieved an impressive seven distinctions!

2014: 93% pass rate (nearly twenty percent above the national average) and seven Bachelor Passes.

In addition, bursaries provided by the Trust have seen learners like Tshlidzi Khakhu go on to study medicine, and local resident David Ramabulana, who had dropped out of his degree in Applied Mathematics and was working as a school gardener, register with UNISA to complete a teaching qualification.

Q5. What effect has the school had on the local community?

Feedback from the Department of Education indicates that the Creating Schools Programme has had a significant impact on the lives of learners and that of the surrounding communities.

The local community have access to the hall, sports fields and computer classroom for adult education.

See also Question 1 above.

Q6. Have any economic opportunities arisen as a result of the building of the school?

A group of local women run a successful sewing business from the resource centre at the school. The Creating Schools Trust helped set them up to make curtains and computer covers. They have extended this business to make school uniforms and bags.

The school receives income from the use of the hall, sports fields and computer classroom by local community.

Q7. What challenges has the school faced to date?

Three significant challenges over the past three years:

  • The Limpopo DoE have been under financial administration, which led to the withdrawal of financial support for cleaning and maintenance services at Vele
  • The prinicipal of 20 years retired in 2013 leaving a leadership vacuum at the school for over a year
  • A massive storm in November last year destroyed a lot of buildings in the area and blew some of the roofs off the classrooms at the school. We are currently waiting for the Limpopo DoE to do repairs and the Trust has been fund raising to assist with the costs

Q8. Has the model for this school been replicated elsewhere?

Despite the high profile nature of the project and the considerable interest that has been shown in the school, we are not aware that the model for the school has not been replicated elsewhere.


Watch a video showing the transformation of the Vele Secondary School here.

To read the full article on Design for Education, see earthworks magazine issue 32, June-July 2016.