LEAP schools for disadvantaged children obtain outstanding results while emphasising emotional intelligence and self-awareness. ‘When discussing group issues we always sit in a circle to emphasise that each person’s opinion is of importance,’ says pupil Khothalang Mau
How are LEAP schools achieving an astonishing 95% grade 12 pass rate with 74% of their matriculants going on to tertiary education? And what made teacher JOHN GILMOUR start these free science and maths schools for South Africa’s educationally vulnerable? Here he talks through the motivating spark, the triumphs and the trials with SUSAN BENTLEY

John (62), the son of a railway worker, is also the co-founder of non-profit educational organisations Bridge and the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition, both of which assist under-performing schools. He serves on a number of educational boards and lives in Cape Town with Pam, his wife of 38 years. They have twin teenage daughters, both studying at the University of Cape Town.

Read the inspiring story of the schools he has set into swing, but FIRST savour these 15 uplifting seconds of a LEAP school choir!

JOHN GILMOUR: ‘I always felt called to care for my neighbour as much as I did myself – but who was my neighbour? And how did I care for them? These are the questions for which I constantly strive to find real and authentic answers.

The idea of the LEAP schools grew out of a call in 1987 by various individuals within corporate South Africa, in particular Pawel Miszewski of South African Breweries, for a response to the developing education crisis in South Africa. I decided to invite black students from Langa to spend a week at Pinelands High School in Cape Town, where I was teaching at the time. This worked really well and over the years grew to a programme through which we were providing approximately 100 black students with support tuition in English, maths and science three afternoons a week. The programme was provided for financially by SAB and Millfield School in England following a visit by one of their teachers.

a leap of faith

However, despite our efforts, very few of these children were getting into university. So, in 2004 I set up the first LEAP (Langa Education Assistance Programme) Science and Maths School, offering free full-time tuition to students with potential from high-need communities. It was a leap of faith, as it had only a small budget and relied heavily on donations of money, resources and equipment. Our first key funders were the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Zenex Foundation.

Today there are six LEAP schools spread around South Africa. Each engages with the broader community, partnering with local schools as well as with a privileged school to give students almost double the classroom time they would receive in regular schools.

outside comfort zones

A key principle of LEAP is to help students find their own authentic voices and become self-aware. I was trained in the educational model where the teacher studies then delivers that teaching to young people, but I’ve realised through working with adolescents in crisis that this approach doesn’t impart wisdom. Once young people are self-aware, they can use the knowledge they acquire at school to make a contribution of their own: before that you’re just giving them knowledge that means nothing to them.

At LEAP we’re relational and allow tough conversations because real learning happens in discomfort. Everyone is encouraged to express feelings and thoughts in respectful, honest and culturally coherent ways, and to listen to others in the same way. These relational structures are empowering and we attribute our extraordinary success to them. We have a 95% grade 12 pass rate, and 74% of our matriculants go on to tertiary education.

 In conversation: LEAP leaders John Gilmour and James Malope chat about what makes it easier to learn

Another challenge has been the lack of adequately trained teachers, so in 2007 we initiated a teacher training programme. Our aim is for 10% of our graduates to study education at tertiary level. Currently, we have about 25 young people in the programme. In 2012 two of the first to qualify as teachers were placed in new LEAP schools and one of them, James Malope, is now a leader at LEAP 4 in Diepsloot, Johannesburg.

The challenges of LEAP are enormous in terms of funding, resources and management, and at times I feel overwhelmed. But I’ve learnt that there’s a cyclical nature to challenges. At times it seems all’s working well and progress is being made, then a new challenge comes along and threatens that progress. This has taught me to grow daily in my trust of God and my trust of others, which involves a willingness to surrender humbly to the process.

We honestly don’t need heroes heavy with accolades to guide the way. What we need is for each one of us to discover for ourselves that we’re loved and are able to love. At LEAP our work is our prayer, and I believe we can use ourselves and whatever gifts we’ve been given to work together practically to create a sustainable and creative educational system, not just in South Africa, but globally. I firmly believe that social transformation starts with personal transformation: one person at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time and one community at a time.’


Grade 12 pass rate: 95%
Tertiary studies pursued by: 74% 
LEAP Science and Maths Schools provide free education to students with potential from high-need communities. Each school engages with the broader community, partnering and collaborating with the local schools as well as with a privileged school. LEAP Schools are unusual in their focus on the emotional and social development of young people and their communities
There are now six LEAP schools in South Africa: two in the Western Cape, three in Gauteng and one in Limpopo
Everyone at LEAP commits to being kind, honest and healthy; being punctual and looking good; working hard and never giving up; admitting and learning from mistakes; confronting issues and being open to change; working together and sharing
Twitter: @johndgilmour
View the LEAP Metaphor
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