Alex and I have been attending the Education NGO Leadership Summit in Benoni today, hosted by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT).

Godwin Khosa (NECT’s CEO) explained the reasons behind NECT’s focus on interventions at the district level; he said that ultimately, we need to focus on interventions that hold potential for changing the system as a whole. Hence, they are not focusing on the level of the learner, or at that of the school. He said that while NECT could hold Saturday classes and see increased improvement in Maths and Science, these initiatives take a lot of effort, are not systemic, and have a lower sustainability potential. 

And I agree with him, in that it’s clear that the system needs an overhaul, with the functionality of schools, districts and provinces increasing dramatically. However, I’m really concerned about the idea that working at the “learner level” is seen as too much effort, unsustainable, and not systemic.

We all know that the learners currently enrolled in the system are in dire need of remedial support to overcome the deficits in their grasp of the basic fundamentals, especially with regard to literacy and numeracy. 27% of our grade 6 learners are functionally illiterate (SACMEQ, 2007), grade 9s scored an average 14% in Maths in the ANAs (2014), and only 3% scored more than 50%. In 2015, the matric pass rate was 71%, but due to heavy grade dropouts, the cohort pass rate was actually just 41%.

Khosa outlined the achievements of NECT to date. While there were some references to “evidence of improvement in the organisation of schools,” the achievements were primarily limited to a list of outputs (number of principals and HODs trained, number of resource packs availed, flash cards, management trackers, etc.) rather than outcomes. Now, while Khosa is absolutely correct that expecting to see improved learner outcomes from NECT in this early stage of its operations (just two years), I am unconvinced that this approach is sufficient for ensuring that 90% of learners pass Maths, Science and Language at above 50% level by 2030 (NECT’s very important and compelling overall objective).

As I outlined in the interview with Business Day a few weeks ago, learners’ gaps in understanding and comprehension, particularly when it comes to STEM and language subjects, require individual attention and personalized learning experiences. And while ICT provides some opportunity for offering personalised and responsive learning experiences at scale, all ed-tech people will tell you, the tech is only ever going to be a small part of what it takes to improve learner achievement.

Learners need relationships, with people who give them time, who build their trust, who help them to figure out where their gaps and challenges are, and then provide them with the academic and psycho-social support they need to dramatically improve their results and confidence. In some homes (mostly in middle class homes), parents and caregivers have the education and time to do this. Most middle class families also enroll children in after-school tutoring programmes.

Unfortunately, this additional support is unavailable to the majority of our country’s learners. It is unrealistic to expect that the education system can provide this level of individualized support to learners, especially when we consider the psycho-social challenges that learners in the lowest quintiles are up against. But the view that doing so is too difficult will ensure the perpetuation of our learners’ dismal academic performance. How can we produce outcomes at the learner level, without working with learners?

Lynn van der Elst, from Miet, said that we need to better understand Government, to put ourselves in their shoes and try understand why things work the way they do. And I think that this important point speaks to the impetus behind NECT’s decision to focus at the district level and above, as levers that make sense for systemic interventions. Government’s job is to serve the 12 million learners who are supposed to be enrolled in the system. Just providing learning materials to 12 million learners must be a colossal challenge, and so it’s unsurprising that the provision of textbooks and digital learning resources is hailed as a systemic intervention, despite the lack of empirical evidence that this will lead to improved academic achievement.

Speakers also spoke about the role of NGOs as innovators, and called for increased collaboration and stronger networks of support. The National Development Plan highlights active citizenry as one of its core pillars, and most of the speakers identified the promotion and creation of active citizenry as a key role for civil society. It is these active citizens that can step up and provide the intense level of support and care that learners need, so that we can see the kinds of radical shifts in academic achievement so desperately needed.

IkamvaYouth’s volunteer tutors and mentors are evidence of what’s possible when citizens become active. Most of these volunteers are university students, and many used to be learners in the programme themselves. By consistently showing up to meet learners where they’re at, they effectively assist learners to dramatically improve their academic results, and go on to access tertiary education, learnerships or jobs. We’re working with almost 20 other tutoring and mentoring programmes, towards achieving collective impact, and together, we will be reaching 3000 learners this year.

Deputy Minister Mr Enver Surty challenged us about the tiny size of our interventions, and encouraged us to think big. “How do we take the principles and vision of the NDP into practical reality?” There were many NGOs in the room who are indeed promoting, inculcating and coordinating active citizens. NGOs like EnkeFundza, TEACH South Africa, Room to Read, WESSA, Partners for Possibility, Equal Education, BridgeSection 27 and Breadline Africa. NGOs who are inspiring, recruiting, equipping and coordinating active citizens to roll up their sleeves and get involved in educating learners, providing a pipeline of educators, supporting principals, improving schools, challenging policymakers, and ultimately working towards the NDP’s big goals. While many are working together already, there is always room to better leverage the potential of collaboration. And it is only through collaboration that we’ll be able to operate at the scale that makes sense to Government. 

The meeting began with a screening of Thandi’s story, which so smartly illustrates the challenges that the NDP aims to address and overcome. When Trevor Manual spoke at IkamvaYouth’s ten year birthday bash, we screened Funeka’s story, to illustrate the impact that after-school tutoring and career guidance mentoring can have. A meaningful way to contribute towards the NDP’s implementation for civil society is to mobilise and activate citizens, and to coordinate our efforts, with each other, and with Government, so that together we can reach more learners like Thandi and enable them to leverage education and improve their lives, just like Funeka.

We appreciate NECT’s efforts to bring us together, and are looking forward to future engagements. Thank you for this opportunity, which we hope is just the beginning of a more cohesive and collaborative approach to realising the NDP.