Blog: Lessons for Limpopo

A project at the University of Warwick is aiming to tackle huge challenges crippling South African schools, writes Laura Jackson

February 18, 2015

Laura White

Last year, 1.5 per cent of pupils in the UK’s state-funded schools failed to achieve five or more GCSE passes in their end-of-school exams.

Compare that to South Africa’s Limpopo Province, where .1 per cent failed to pass their nearest equivalent, the National Senior Certificate. That equates to 20,000 17- and 18-year-olds finishing school in the province without fulfilling their basic educational requirements. It’s an overwhelming statistic, and one that Limpopo’s Education Board has now agreed needs overseas support to tackle.

The University of Warwick already works with a number of African schools as part of its student-teacher ‘Warwick in Africa’ programme, and it was building on these links that enabled the university’s Centre for Education Studies – in partnership with Limpopo’s University of Venda – to win a £52,000 grant last summer from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a project aimed at improving educational attainment in Limpopo’s secondary schools.

This led to a visit to the UK in OCtober by a group of Limpopo school principals, Venda staff and provincial education board members, who worked with Warwick lecturers to develop an understanding of the needs of head teachers in the province, followed last month by a reciprocal trip by three members of Warwick staff, of which I was one, so we could see for ourselves the challenges facing the region’s educators.

Some of the schools we visited on our five-day tour of the Vhembe district of Limpopo were in crisis. Their primary concerns were basic human needs such as the supply of fresh water, flushing toilets and kitchens in which to prepare school meals. Buildings lacked windows, doors and even flat floors (we saw desks precariously balanced in potholes in some of the classrooms we were shown).

For the better performing schools, basic resources were more evident, but it was clear that a chronic lack of planning had left principals confused about the future – computer blocks had been built, but there were no computers to put in them, and in any case it was unclear to the teachers, whose access to technology was limited, how they could possibly gain the necessary expertise to teach with the missing machines.

We met many passionate teachers who were determined to help their students succeed. But, hamstringed by the lack of resources, it was also evident how difficult it was for staff to stay motivated.

Despite all this, the students were often inspirational characters: their desire to create a professional future, either beyond the small rural communities they had grown up in or in a way that would benefit their communities, was fierce. The schools must be commended for instilling such ambition and motivation under extremely challenging circumstances, and many of the students had career goals that were recognisable to those of us working in the UK: those we met aspired to be lawyers and accountants, doctors and nurses, pilots and computer scientists.

The difference is the opportunity for these young adults to turn dreams into reality. One 18-year-old intent on training as a lawyer had little concept of what practising law would involve, or what life at university might be like. He wasn’t even sure of the marks he needed in his National Senior Certificate to secure a university place. He also admitted that his concentration levels in class were hampered by the searing heat (which reached 38 Celsius during our stay) and the three-hours he spent walking to and from school each day.

So what can we, as academics here in the UK, do to help? We weren’t there to offer resources – our pot of money does not extend to kitting out computer labs or building new toilet blocks. But we saw areas where, with the right guidance, there was potential to turn around those feelings of hopelessness among the teaching staff.

Working with our colleagues in Limpopo, we identified a number of areas where we could usefully offer guidance, including strategies for smarter leadership and management, the nurturing of better school-to-school support, and a focus on parental and community engagement to help improve attendance and discipline. We also saw opportunities to improve communication between staff  within schools, and to embed feelings of motivational responsibility at the management level.

Our evidence-based recommendations form the backbone of a new bid submitted this week to the FCO’s Prosperity Fund, which would enable us to go back and work with the same school principals who visited in October; to build on what they learned, understand how they can implement our strategies, and train them to support more schools– a sort of ‘pay-it-forward’ approach, if you will.

The changes will be small at first, and we know that it takes time for such things to have a real impact. But if the work we do helps just one school improve the chances of educational achievement for a handful of students, we’ve done our job.

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