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Thys Franken


‘Looking back I’d say we made a success of Curro because we did it step by step. Like a sculptor, chipping away at a big block of granite.’

– Thys Franken


When deciding to put his weight behind Curro as one of the four founders, Thys Franken knew that it would be a risk, but looking back now, he knows that Curro was made a success because they took things step by step – like a sculptor, chipping away at a big block of granite.

Thys started his teaching career in Montagu, a small town in the Western Cape, in 1973. After his time there he went on to fill leadership positions at various prestigious schools, including Durbanville Primary School, Saffier Primary School and Gene Louw Primary School – where he was the first deputy principal. It was at Gene Louw where he met Dr Chris van der Merwe, then an inexperienced teacher applying for his first position. During this time Thys and Dr Alex Volschenk, the principal, had already started experimenting with a modular approach to education, and having some exposure at university, Dr Chris was very excited about this. ‘When Vollie, or Dr Volschenk, suggested we documented what we were doing by writing a book and we needed a typist – the computer had just been introduced – Chris was the logical choice.’, says Thys.

While their approach was being put on paper, Thys went on to do his master’s degree on the leadership role of the principal in curriculum development. Some time after Thys’s degree, Dr Chris did his master’s degree on modular education – which lead to his first business, SkoolCor, and turned what had been Thys and Dr Volschenk’s book into a lucrative small business.

But where did Thys’s Curro story begin? Thys has always appreciated Chris van der Merwe’s passion for education and they often talked about education concepts and made drawings of their ideas. ‘One holiday both our families went to Stilbaai. Chris’s first father-in-law owned a boat and we took it out on the water. Something went wrong with the rudder and the boat started going round and round in circles. We figured out that if we wanted to row it back to shore, we had to get rid of all the fuel. So while the boat slowly circled, Chris shared his ideas for an independent school and when we finally got to shore, he drew his business plan in the sand.’ That’s where it all began.  

Thys was a seasoned principal, former chief education specialist in the Western Cape Department of Education, and acting director of professional staffing services in the department when Dr Chris first showed him the land in 1998 where Curro Durbanville now stands. ‘We drove there and we looked, but there was nothing, just vineyards and trees and the dam. Chris turned to me and said: “Are you in? I want to open in July. The tractors must get going.”’ If Thys were to resign from his job at the time (prior to retirement) he would lose a sizeable amount of his pension. However, he had a history with Dr Chris and always knew he was meant to teach. In the end it was a hard decision made easy. He wrote off the loss, took out a bond and a few months later he resigned.

In January 1999 Thys took charge of the Grades 4 to 7 group. They were moved from the church (where the school was at the time) to the ‘café’ – as they called the nearby 7 Eleven classrooms – to make room for the growing numbers. Dr Chris left so he could start building the school while Boetie Ungerer remained at the church with his class. Eddie Conradie joined Thys two months later and the 7 Eleven became the primary school. ‘I shared my classroom with the copier. The walls between the different classrooms were so thin that when Eddie had a particularly boisterous class, we had to do some self-studying or reading and resume when they were finished.’ During breaks the teachers had their lunch underneath the tree outside and watched over the children playing in the park across the street. ‘My wife used to joke that we were the tiniest school with the biggest snoepie (tuck shop). Imagining Curro as big as it is now was simply unfathomable for us. But nor for Chris.’


Today Thys enjoys spending time with his three children: Vicky, Thys and Jeanmari, and seven grandchildren. ‘My wife, Jeanne and I also try to travel as often as we can and I enjoy embarking on new business ventures with my son.’ When asked for some words of wisdom, Thys replied: ‘Don’t choose the easy way out when faced with a challenge. There is truth in Gary Player’s words: “The harder you work, the luckier you get”. We have indeed been very lucky.’

Hailed as a brilliant principal by his colleagues, Thys Franken was certainly not a man you’d mess with back then. His formidable dark moustache and steely gaze could get any noisy kid to pipe down, yet his big heart and in-depth knowledge of school management and curriculum development made him an inspirational leader and much-loved head of primary school.