Retired Norfolk teacher Penny proves you don’t have to be young to take a gap year

Penny Whyte from Saxlingham Nethergate who has travelled to South Africa to work in a school with disadvantaged kids. Penny Whyte from Saxlingham Nethergate who has travelled to South Africa to work in a school with disadvantaged kids.

Thursday, February 27, 2014
6:18 PM

Say the words “gap year” and most people would imagine the young, free and single jetting off to explore the world and its more exotic locations.

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Penny Whyte from Saxlingham Nethergate who has travelled to South Africa to work in a school with disadvantaged kids.Penny Whyte from Saxlingham Nethergate who has travelled to South Africa to work in a school with disadvantaged kids.

But at 67 years young, retired teacher Penny Whyte, of Saxlingham Nethergate, has proved that you don’t have to be a carefree teen to set off on foreign adventures and she has used her gap year to make a difference to the lives of some of the world’s most deprived children.

For in 2008, the former Long Stratton High School teacher spent three months teaching English at a school in one of South Africa’s poorest neighbourhoods and has since becoming a regular visitor, returning annually until 2012 when a broken ankle prevented her from travelling.

However, the well travelled mum-of-one is hopeful of returning in January next year so long as her injury has healed, having been visibly moved by the welcome she had received by the staff and children at the secondary school in the Grassy Park area of Cape Town, an area notorious for its problems with gang crime and anti-social behaviour.

Mrs Whyte, who grew up in Lowestoft, said staff had to deal with problems relating to drugs and poor discipline in the classroom, often relating to the children’s dishevelled home lives.

She said fathers were often absent, while playground fights, sometimes between relatives, were a common occurrence.

She added on one occasion, a female pupil suffered a cut head after an object was thrown through a window, causing glass to shatter and fall on her, but Mrs Whyte had to be careful when treating her cut due to the risk of catching Aids.

She said many of the children had learning difficulties and poor levels of written English and they were taught in classes of 50.

Laptops and computers were unheard of, with lessons being conducted on chalk boards, while the children were too poor to travel abroad, though a couple had been to visit a school in Yorkshire.

However, she said since she had visited she had helped to re-open the school library, which had been neglected and teach the children poetry, introducing them to the work of Wordsworth and Pride and Prejudice.

One of the youngsters, Jaydean Vos, 14, penned a poem “About Youth Day” reflecting life in her tough neighbourhood, where rape, murder and domestic violence are commonplace.

Mrs Whyte, who lives with her husband Roger, 70 and has previously lived in the Middle East, said her travelling was one of the motivating factors behind her decision to visit South Africa.

“They say once you go to Africa, Africa gets hold of you. The fact that I had the chance to do it at my age was so exciting and so different. I think I have achieved something and made a difference in an area that was so needy in terms of teaching.

“I have loved every moment I have been out there. I felt that I was doing something useful out there. Age is not a barrier if you are strong and able to adapt and if you are happy to adapt then you suddenly realise you can cope.”

Are you an older gap year adventurer? Email dominic.bareham2@archant.co.uk.

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