Trinityhouse Northriding closes for good at the expense of children & teachers

While its owners blame the tough economic climate, teachers and parents say more could have been done to save the private school.

Trinityhouse Northriding in Johannesburg is set to close for good at the end of 2020 academic year. Picture: @Trinityhouse Northriding/Facebook

JOHANNESBURG - Light brown face-brick walls, neatly manicured gardens and trees that recently gave birth to purple and white flowers. In addition to these pleasant features, you are greeted by broad smiles and waving hands as you enter Trinityhouse Northriding, in the north of Johannesburg. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you visit the school, its security personnel are consistently friendly. At the reception area, staff members make you feel like the most important visitor in the world. "I never come to work with a heavy heart. I really love being here," one staff member told Eyewitness News.

As you walk towards the classrooms, you can see a massive football field and a swimming facility to the right. Screams of excited pupils pierce through their little masks. It’s not hard to tell that the youngsters are genuinely proud and happy to be here. It’s an impressive school with world-class teachers. Each classroom takes a small number of children, making it easier for the educators to focus on the needs of each learner.

The school follows a strong Christian ethos, accompanied by a curriculum that is captivating. The pupils are taught everything from coding techniques in their Maths sessions, using vocabulary effectively in their English and isiZulu classes to learning the basics of leadership. For those who are interested in extramural activities, there’s drama, chess, cricket and others.

"Trinity is a good school in terms of foundation and what they instill in our kids," parent Charlotte Mogashoa tells me. But beyond this, the school has a warm atmosphere that promotes good relations among parents. "I’ve made a lot of friends, a bond with the parents. Most of the friends that I currently have, it’s through the kids interacting with each other," Mogashoa says.

But this warm and welcoming environment is only one side to the school. Behind the broad smiles and beautiful architecture, there’s a sense of fear, anger and frustration. Private conversations in the school’s corridors are unpleasant. It all started in mid-August when parents were invited to an urgent meeting to be held on the evening of the 20th of the same month. A few hours before that meeting, staff members were summoned to a separate gathering. Officials from education group ADvTECH, the company that owns the school, were also present.

"We thought we were going to discuss additional classes for 2021," says one teacher who prefers to remain anonymous. But the meeting became something completely unexpected. Employees were told that the school would be shutting down at the end of December 2020.

"There have been 13 staff members who have been provided with Section 189 letters, indicating that they will follow a consultation process that may result in retrenchment," says ADvTECH’s communications manager Desiree Seaton.

In the days that followed the devastating 20 August announcement, the atmosphere at the school changed. The smiles are still there, but swollen eyes tell a different story. "We are devastated, totally sad. I really loved teaching here. What am I going to do now?" asked one of the teachers. Every staff member that Eyewitness News spoke to did not want to be named as they feared being victimised.

Seaton says the closure was unavoidable.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of our schools but has had a compounding effect on schools who were already struggling with enrolments and had small student numbers. Northriding by 2020 was originally planned to have around 400 students. It reached a peak of 129 students in 2018. This has diminished to 92 in 2020 and is expected to be between 60 and 70 students for 2021, with only eight new applications being received for grades 000 to four for 2021."

But some teachers and parents accuse ADvTECH of being more focused on profits than the well being of the educational institution. They argue that the company is using the coronavirus pandemic to shield its failure to thoroughly market the school. Parent Masilo Serekele says he came to know about the school, not through advertisement, but by chance. "I discovered the school passing through Boundary Road, going up and down. I use Boundary Road when driving to Clearwater. It doesn’t have much traffic. That’s how I saw the school. I think it was two years ago. I enquired and then enrolled both of my kids."

But Seaton denies that ADvTECH has failed to market the institution.

"The school has been marketed alongside all of the Trinityhouse sister schools in recent years. This has included marketing campaigns and open days. We are aware that certain parents wanted the school to be marketed in a different manner to the larger Trinityhouse schools, focusing specifically on intimacy and small classes. However, this value proposition is not aligned with that of all other Trinityhouse schools where class sizes are all understood to be 25-26 students per class. This was also the original intention for Northriding, appreciating that it would take some time to get to those class sizes. It is also not a sustainable model with such small student numbers at the current fees."

Mogashoa was forced to deregister her son from his grade three class in July due to financial difficulties. “I’ve had struggles in terms of paying. So, I had arrears in January, which I’ve tried to negotiate and I paid off in February, and currently now with this pandemic, my business is literally closed," says the mother of one.

Her problems reflect those of many parents whose children are at private schools across South Africa. According to the National Alliance of Independent Schools Association (Naisa), there are between 60% and 70% of parents whose children are in private schools nationwide are battling to pay school fees. The association says schools had to retrench some staff members and dip into their reserves to pay for some of their expenses. Others had to shut down completely. These, according to Naisa, include Pomeroy Christian School in KwaZulu Natal, Bishop Bavin School in Gauteng and Marnè Ebersohn Akademie in Limpopo.

However, it is not yet clear how many schools in South Africa have had to shut down as a result of financial problems. Naisa’s secretary-general Ebrahim Ansur says it’s still early to tell. "Most schools are expecting that the children are going to pay before the end of the year. It’s possible that schools may be in a position to make a call maybe towards September/October because there are promises from parents that once the economy starts to reopen, they might start paying. But one never knows what the future holds. It’s a wait-and-see situation." Naisa has now turned to government for financial relief. "We have a meeting scheduled with the minister. I expect that this will be on the agenda. We might hear something, one way or the other."

Whether or not President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government will step in and assist battling independent schools isn't clear yet. But whatever happens moving forward, it doesn’t look promising for Trinityhouse Northriding. ADvTECH has taken its decision. The exciting concert evenings where children showcased their talents in front of their parents, are not coming back. Fathers’ Day events at the school that promoted a friendship among dads are a thing of the past. Sports days that saw children and parents teaming up to happily compete against each other are over.

The fate of the teachers is not yet known. Some might find a place within the ADvTECH group and continue to do what they love. But this is not guaranteed. It’s a sad ending, but this is the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic - a battling economy and possibly poor corporate leadership. Either way, it’s curtains down for Trinityhouse Northriding and dozens of other private schools with similar circumstances.

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