Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Ikamva Youth

Challenges and lessons learned in securing post-school placements for township-based matrics

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Facilitate access to educational opportunities | 15 August, 2013 - 12:00


Achieving against the odds

Since 2005, the township matrics IkamvaYouth works with have never failed to exceed an 85% pass rate, despite all the odds stacked against them. Last year, 94% per cent of the class of 2012 passed their National Senior Certificate, and by May 2013 (i.e. 6 months after writing their final exams) 96% of those young men and women had accessed tertiary education, learnerships or jobs. That's an incredible achievement given that 42% of 18-24 year-olds nationally are not in education, employment or training.

Talent Chinogureyi, a Zimbabwean learner from IkamvaYouth's Chesterville Branch in KwaZulu-Natal, writes, “Looking back to my family’s financial instability, I thought I wasn’t going to reach university… Then a week later, I received an email notifying me that I have been given 90% bursary towards my tuition to study this course, with the accommodation paid for. I was really overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe it.”

Talent is part of the 43% of IkamvaYouth's class of 2012 who accessed universities or universities of technology. She is now studying towards a Bachelor of Commerce in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at private university St Augustine College, in Johannesburg – and coming top of her maths class.

Talent's story is inspiring. And IkamvaYouth's 2012 numbers sound close to miraculous – the pass rate rivals that at many far more privileged private or “Model C” schools. But neither the numbers nor the uplifting anecdotes tell the full story. There are many challenges, frustrations, obstacles and disappointments inherent in trying to secure post-school placements for township youth, illustrated by the fact that 56% of the IkamvaYouth class of 2012 did not access their first choice of placement. Even with IkamvaYouth's intervention, these learners suffer from lingering underachievement and mismatching between expectations and reality.

In this Learning Brief, IkamvaYouth will share some of the key challenges and how we have learned to overcome them. Based on our experience, we will also propose needed shifts in thinking and policy for government, public and private educational institutions, and bursary and other financial assistance providers.

A path out of poverty

IkamvaYouth's mission is to enable disadvantaged youth to pull themselves and each other out of poverty and into tertiary education and/or employment.

To that end, IkamvaYouth focuses on its beneficiaries (the Ikamvanites)'s  academic achievement at school, and in particular their matric pass rate – taking the view that success at this level is both an essential first step towards, and a good predictor for, future life success.

But the data is clear: a matric pass alone is no guarantee that a young person will escape poverty. That's why we strive to place 100% of each year’s matric cohort into post-school opportunities – education, employment, or training – which do set them on that path.

The Challenges: Under-achievement, informational asymmetry and the savvy gap

The key risks for township learners arise from 3 crucial issues:

  • the bar is set too low, both at school and at home/in the wider community, leading to underachievement even by learners with the academic potential to do much better;
  • lack of access to information about the possibilities and requirements of post-school placements leads learners to unwittingly narrow their choices throughout their school careers;
  • the systems for accessing tertiary education in particular are essentially designed with middle-class applicants in mind, and thus seem Byzantine and even hostile to township learners who lack the savvy to navigate them.

Challenge 1: A culture of under-achievement creates low aspirations and false expectations

In many underperforming schools, a key performance indicator for school management teams is what proportion of their grade 12 learners pass the National Senior Certificate (matric). This pass/fail binary sets a very low standard for learners to aspire to, often reinforced by low expectations from teachers, who reward barely passing code 3s (40-49%) or mediocre code 4s (50-59%) on mid-year grade 12 reports with comments like “keep up the good work”.

This low threshold for academic “success” is reinforced by the Department of Basic Education (DBE)'s  officially propagated minimum standards for accessing post-school education. The DBE ranks matric passes into 4 categories: Pass, Higher Certificate Pass, Diploma Pass and Bachelor Degree Pass. In theory, these pass types should help learners understand their post-school prospects, but the reality is that even the highest, a Bachelor Degree Pass, is completely inadequate to guarantee access to any form of tertiary. It can be achieved by a learner with a 43% matric average, including results of 30% for Mathematical Literacy and 30% for English First Additional Language – someone who would struggle to access (let alone succeed in) even Higher Certificate studies at many Further Education and Training (FET) colleges.

The effect of setting the bar so low is twofold. Firstly, it creates a culture of under-achievement that invites learners to accept mediocrity rather than striving for excellence. Indeed this effect is so profound that the top-performing learner in an entire school might have an average only in the 60s, but have no incentives and little support to push her marks any higher – she is her teachers' star pupil and as far as official standards are concerned she is already far “exceeding” the requirements to access degree studies. Socio-economic and historical factors often mean that there is also nobody at home supporting or pushing learners to strive for higher marks.

Second, the misleadingly low standards create false expectations in learners about what options they have after school, with the result that they will often only apply for post-school opportunities that are, in reality, out of their reach. Learners also fail to understand how much competition they face for placements, and are therefore very reluctant to accept, or even apply for, anything that is not their first choice.

The result of all this is learners sitting in February of their post-matric year without a placement or any fall-back options, or, in extreme cases, leaving an offer from a perfectly good institution to expire simply because it is not their first choice – and then not getting a second offer.

Challenge 2: Informational asymmetry and a lack of role models lead to a narrow set of choices

There is a severe informational asymmetry between township learners and their middle-class counterparts.

Learners attending well-resourced suburban schools will likely have well-informed parents, teachers, and other connections to advise them. They might have school visits from tertiary institutions, and can probably access the resources and help needed to conduct further research privately. They are exposed to many role models from a wide range of careers, and so see their own career options as broad.

All of this information and support gives privileged learners the necessary skills and framework to objectively weigh their choices throughout their school career. They can thus keep as many options as possible open for as long as possible, then ultimately make informed decisions about which post-school path to take.

By contrast, in many cases the Ikamvanites are the first member of their family to pass or even write matric. There are also very few role models and education champions in their wider communities. Township schools and individual teachers may do their best to distribute information, university prospectuses, etc., but their own resources are severely limited and so this attention tends to be concentrated on the few highest-performing learners at a given school – and unlike in more privileged environments it tends to be introduced very late in learners' school careers, in grade 11 or 12, after subject choices are already set in stone. Township learners' private access to information is also minimal: they are very unlikely to have computers or internet at home, and they have little or no guidance as to how to find information even when they do have the needed infrastructure.

The impact of this asymmetry is felt at every crucial decision point of a learner's school career, beginning with grade 9 subject selection. Township learners' subject choices are often ill-informed and driven by factors unrelated to their career preferences. In particular, the drive for higher pass rates with little regard for the quality or post-school value of those passes, as detailed under challenge 1, means that learners are pushed by their schools to choose easier subjects (e.g. Mathematical Literacy instead of Mathematics, Business Studies instead of Physical Sciences, etc.). The lack of resources in struggling schools also means learners' subject choices may be constrained by arbitrary factors such as whether there are adequate textbooks or a teacher available for a given subject. Because grade 9 township learners have access to so little information about post-school opportunities, they are unlikely to push back against these pressures and insist on subject choices which keep their career options open.

The challenges of lack of information continue into learners' later careers, and by the time they reach grade 11 or 12 they are often aware of only a few fields of study or work – the traditional “professions” such as Accounting, Engineering, Teaching, Medicine, etc. – and see these as the only fields worth entering, regardless of whether they align to the learners' subject choices, interests, competencies or academic results. This can lead to situations where learners without even the requisite subject choices to be considered for entrance apply only to these familiar courses – e.g. a Mathematical Literacy learner aspiring to a career in engineering.

The same narrow awareness also applies to employers and tertiary institutions – township learners are likely to know of only a few such institutions, and consider them the only ones worth applying to – even when they would have a much better chance of being accepted elsewhere.

The effect of this lack of information is that township learners often fall in to one of three traps – they apply to no, or not enough, post-school opportunities because they are not aware of any suitable ones; they apply to post-school opportunities that they have no chance of being accepted for because of the false expectations created by their schooling; or they apply to opportunities that they may be accepted for, but will have little chance of succeeding in because of their limited understanding of their career options.

Challenge 3: Complex (and expensive) application and registration processes become a barrier to entry for the underprivileged

When middle-class learners actually apply to university, much like when they research which universities to consider, they are surrounded by institutional and familial support. Their parents and teachers have previous experience of the complex forms, of translating school marks into points, of which subjects need to be prioritised and which extracurricular activities should be emphasised. They know that grade 11 marks are crucial and that the earlier you apply the better. They have many connections who can write accomplished references, and they have support, guidance and editing for their motivational essays and their covering letters.

Township learners, on the other hand, may well be the most experienced form-completers in their households. They have likely never written a motivational essay or letter before, and quite often neither has anyone else in their immediate family or social circle. Even if they have a number of extracurricular activities under their belts, they may not see this as important to their application – indeed Ikamvanites who have attended 95% of IkamvaYouth sessions for 3 years might not mention that fact on an application without IkamvaYouth's guidance. Something as simple as an absent  supporting document can sabotage a township learner's entire application, and by extension their entire future; their school principal is unavailable to sign a reference, the school doesn't have a stamp, they’re struggling to get an ID book out of Home Affairs, or their informally employed guardian is unable to produce proof of income.

Even if township learners are able to navigate the application process according to the explicit instructions, their lack of inside knowledge of the system can be a crippling disadvantage. For example, they are inclined to treat final deadlines as submission dates – so they are often at the back of a long first-come-first-served queue for inadequate tertiary places, and any unforeseen delay disqualifies their application.

Many learners also do not realise that applications can and should be done on the basis of grade 11 results, before June matric marks come in. Instead they wait for their June results, which are often a dip from grade 11 marks because of harder external papers. When they see this dip, learners sometimes resolve to wait still longer, for Preliminary or even Final results – not realising that by that time they will have missed many crucial deadlines, especially for financial aid or bursaries.

Soft barriers to entry like these are problematic but can potentially be overcome by a supportive environment like IkamvaYouth's. There is, however, also a hard barrier: fees. The application fees for prestigious institutions like the University of Cape Town (UCT) or the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) can be extremely high, especially for families whose household income may be no more than R1000-1500 a month, divided many ways. This compounds the already existing problem covered in challenges 1 and 2 of narrowing township learners' options – there is even less incentive to apply to your second, third or fourth choice of institution if the cost of doing so would require a major financial sacrifice.

The most significant fees, though, are levied not at the application stage, but later, once all the application fees and time and effort required to gain acceptance at the institution are already sunk costs. They are something many learners and their families are not aware of at all at the time they apply, and they can be an insurmountable obstacle: registration fees. These are payable upfront when new students arrive at university for the beginning of their first semester, and by the standards of township learners, they can be astronomical. At Wits, for example, they are in excess of R8000 – more than 6 months household income for many Ikamvanites. These fees are typically not covered by NSFAS or other readily available forms of financial aid, and can trip a township learner at the final hurdle.

To privileged individuals, most of these obstacles might sound far from insurmountable. After all, universities are bureaucracies that excel at making exceptions for the right person. When the registrar, finance office or head of applications says “no”, it is sometimes enough not to take no for an answer.

But that is substantially harder for township learners. In his book Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell describes an insidious gap between the children of middle-class families and their less privileged counterparts. It is not IQ or academic performance that have the biggest impact on who succeeds and who does not, he argues. It is “social savvy” - the ability to get what you want out of life by using communication skills and a particular form of assertiveness and entitlement.

Gladwell cites sociologist Annette Lareau, who found in a study of this phenomenon that middle-class children, “acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. They appeared comfortable in  those settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention,” while “poor children... didn't know how to get their way, or how to “customize” whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.”[1]

In the university environment, this translates for township learners into a tendency to take no for an answer a little too readily, and accept rejection more easily than more privileged learners – with the ironic and unfortunate result that those who most need exceptions to be made are those least likely to get them.

The Solutions: motivating and informing the Ikamvanites to take ownership of their own futures

IkamvaYouth's full name is Ikamva lisezandleni zethu – isiXhosa for “The future is in our hands.”[2] A key part of the organisation's success is that the Ikamvanites take responsibility for, and ownership of, their own education. The organisation provides the support, learning resources and information that may be  missing from the Ikamvanites' external lives, on the principle that with this support, the Ikamvanites themselves should generate their own culture of achievement and be able to close much of the gap between them and their more privileged counterparts.

Solution 1: A culture of competition, aspiration, collaboration and optimism leads to self-motivated achievement

At IkamvaYouth, a pass is never enough.

Learners from a number of different schools attend each branch, and due to strict attendance requirements every Ikamvanite who reaches matric is steeped in the organisation's principles of hard work and commitment. This helps to generate a competitive culture among the Ikamvanites. It is one thing to be top of your school – indeed at any given branch a number of Ikamvanites may hold that position – but it requires a lot of work to be top of your Ikamva branch, where everyone is keenly trying to achieve their best possible results.

This culture of competition is balanced by one of collaboration. IkamvaYouth's learning model is peer-driven. Although there are formal tutors available to the learners (at a ratio of 1:5), the system works best when every learner becomes a tutor, leveraging uneven knowledge, confidence and ability levels between individuals, and different levels of curriculum coverage at different schools, to make every learner an expert on some part of the curriculum for some subject.

Ikamvanites are also exposed to aspirational figures beyond just their higher-achieving peers. The organisation's model of using locally-based volunteer tutors from nearby universities means that Ikamvanites interact on a weekly basis with aspirational figures, close to them in age and often from similar backgrounds; the role models so often lacking from Ikamvanites' external lives. As branches mature and grow, a significant proportion of IkamvaYouth's volunteer tutors are also drawn from the alumni population – ensuring that the tutors are strongly relate-able role models for the Ikamvanites.

Ikamva volunteers and staff also work hard to ensure that IkamvaYouth is an optimistic environment and instil a “yes we can” attitude in the Ikamvanites[3]. As Paul Tough reports in his brilliant book on bridging the achievement gap in the US, How Children Succeed, by now the evidence is clear – optimism and a belief in the malleability of your own intelligence and academic achievement are vital keys to success.[4] That evidence is replicated at IkamvaYouth, where the growth of a learner's belief in himself can again and again be correlated to an improvement in his marks.

Kuhle, a grade 12 Ikamvanite at one of the Western Cape branches, encapsulates this culture. He is already one of the top learners both at his school and the IkamvaYouth branch, and he probably has the marks he needs to access university and pursue his chosen career as a teacher, but he remains determined to increase his results in several subjects by a code – i.e. 10% or more – before his final exams, simply because he is sure he can.

This drive for superior results ensures that Ikamvanites do not settle for their schools' expectations of a pass, or the DBE's minimum requirements, but achieve the marks they really need to access quality post-school opportunities.

Solutions 2&3: Balancing out the information asymmetries leads to a balance between realism, ambition and passion; Supplementing social and institutional structures by enabling peers, mentors, and parents to develop empowered, informed Ikamvanites

From Ikamvanites' first weeks with the organisation, in grade 8, 9, 10 or 11, emphasis is placed not just on schoolwork alone, but on access to information. This happens both automatically, through their exposure to their tutors,and deliberately. Branch-based staff distribute information about post-school opportunities throughout the year, and match opportunities to Ikamvanites based on their knowledge of academic performance and interests – in some ways playing the role that teachers and parents might for a more privileged learner.

Ikamvanites also all attend compulsory computer literacy courses, ensuring that they can access online information about opportunities. This also allows them to access IkamvaYouth's central repository of information, the Ikamvanite Zone (www.ikamvanitezone.org), where information about bursaries, scholarships, employment opportunities, etc. is shared online.

In their grade 12 year, all Ikamvanites are paired 1-on-1 with a mentor, who guides them through the final process of choosing the post-school opportunities most suitable for them, and helps them with the details of the application process – again substituting for a role that might be played by the parents and teachers of more privileged learners. The mentor helps the Ikamvanite to objectively weigh and compare their options, and make informed decisions about what to apply for, then ensures that they get their application done correctly, effectively and on time.

This pairing with a knowledgeable mentor, together with the know-how and experience of IkamvaYouth branch staff, ensures that Ikamvanites do no fall into the trap of narrowing their options, or applying to inappropriately elite opportunities that they are unlikely to qualify for. Through our donors, supporters and partners, IkamvaYouth has developed a network of opportunity providers. These partners, such as ABI, AME, Capitec Bank, Harambee, Live Magazine, St Augustine College,  TSiBA, Tzu Chi foundation, to name a few, help make sure that every Ikamvanite can be matched with an opportunity both relevant to their interests and appropriate to their academic achievement, whether that be a learnership, an internship, employment, or tertiary-level studies.

While IkamvaYouth's staff and mentors go a long way towards closing the gap between township learners and their more privileged counterparts, the learners' parents and their wider community have a vital part to play. To that end, IkamvaYouth works to upskill and inform parents, volunteers and teachers so that they too can perform more like their more privileged counterparts. Every IkamvaYouth branch is run by a Branch Committee (branchcom), comprised of learners, volunteers, parents and other community stakeholders. The wider community is also invited to attend regular parents' and other stakeholders' meetings. By being involved in day-to-day decision making about the academic careers of the Ikamvanites, guided by the branch staff, the branchcom and other stakeholders become more informed and engaged with the education process. In this way, an IkamvaYouth branch can touch whole families and communities, as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to take ownership of their own and their children's educations.

The support and confidence building work done at IkamvaYouth also helps ensure that when Ikamvanites do arrive in the tertiary environment, they are better equipped to not take no for an answer. 2005 matric and current Makhaza Branch Coordinator Zukile Keswa recounts his experience of registering for his first degree at UWC: “Joy finally had enough when we got into the financial aid office. She told the lady that was in charge that we not leaving the office until we got help. We showed them our acceptance letter and our good matric results. Then we all sat on the floor since there were no chairs. After a while, a lady left and came back with 3 forms to fill out. We were told that our registration had been cleared and we could go and register. To sidestep the problem whereby we had no funds for registration, she awarded us full scholarships for our fees and residence.”

Closing the gap

Much of the work IkamvaYouth does with the Ikamvanites is simply about filling in for resources, access and support that more privileged young people could take for granted. IkamvaYouth provides the framework, and the Ikamvanites and their communities have repeatedly shown themselves to be more than resourceful enough to do the rest.

Unfortunately though, while this goes a long way towards closing the achievement gap, it is not always adequate, and each year there are a few Ikamvanites who remain unplaced, as well as a number who face disappointment when they are unable to access their first choice of placement.

In part, this is about the well-publicised problems of the school system itself. Ikamvanites come to us late in their school careers, and despite all the work they and IkamvaYouth do, the gap is sometimes too wide to close in just 2 or 3 years.

To this end, IkamvaYouth has begun reaching further back, to grades 8 & 9. In the Western Cape we have run a highly successful pilot of mathematics fundamentals programmes: Maths Yes We Can (workbooks written by Rahael Jalan) and Khan Academy for these grades over the past 2 years, and we've seen a massive improvement in the results of the Ikamvanites. Not only that, but after this intervention Ikamvanites are much more likely to choose Mathematics rather than Mathematical Literacy when they make grade 10 subject choices.[5]

But there are also many things that could change at a policy level, external to the school system itself, that would ease the placement process for underprivileged learners.

The DBE's pass ranking system is clearly inadequate, and a cynic could easily view it as a tool for artificially inflating our national reportable results. Tertiary institutions themselves are also imperfect in this regard, often not doing enough to demystify their own selection criteria, or requiring learners to undergo stressful additional testing such as the National Benchmarking Test (NBT) or individual entrance tests at an already challenging time in their school careers. A more ideal situation would be one where the department of education and universities themselves, public institutions as they are, worked together to provide a single coherent standard for the results required to access tertiary, eliminating the contradictory information and multiple benchmarks that currently exist.

Tertiary applications and admission processes are also often challenging and opaque to learners who have absolutely no family experience of navigating the system. How complicated applications are varies from one institution to the next, as does how well instructions are communicated, but the whole process could easily be simplified by instituting a single, centralised, national application management system such as UCAS in the UK. There is already a fairly effective system in place in KwaZulu-Natal, the Central Admissions Office (CAO), and the university application process is much easier for Ikamvanites there.

FET colleges' application processes also seem almost designed for uncertainty and chaos, with many having a “turn up on the day and hope” policy. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty and inevitably some disappointment for Ikamvanites who want to access tertiary at this level, and it is hard to see why, in principle, FET applications couldn't function more like universities.

Funding for further study is also an area of particular challenge. Most of the Ikamvanites who access tertiary education do so on government-backed NSFAS loans, which are not always provided efficiently and timeously, adding an additional stress to the already difficult period of first-year adjustment. Those could be streamlined and better managed. And while IkamvaYouth currently makes a significant contribution towards our learners’ application and registration fees, this is becoming increasingly challenging as we scale. Although there are ways to get registration fees waived or discounted, success is usually contingent upon solid relationships with relevant decision makers at most institutions.

However, there is a large sector of funding that remains frustratingly inaccessible for the majority of Ikamvanites – bursaries and scholarships. Although there are notable exceptions (e.g. ASSET, REAP,  MSDF, Studietrust), many of these schemes remain resolutely focused on academic merit, measured in absolute terms, as their key selection criterion. This means that many bursaries end up being awarded to exceptionally high performing learners from very well-resourced schools, as long as they tick the box of being “previously” underprivileged – regardless of their current status. Many of these bursary schemes have retention and throughput rates that are uncomfortably low. Rather than simply raising the academic bar still further and excluding wider sections of society from the running, perhaps bursary providers should look to the mounting evidence that “non-cognitive” factors can be effective predictors of post-school success, and look for candidates who have displayed such factors, achieving relative success, excelling within extremely challenging contexts or making very significant improvements to their results despite facing obstacles – candidates like the Ikamvanites.

[1]    Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, the Story of Success, Little, Brown and Company, 2008: pg 105

[2]    This is more than just a catchphrase – the Ikamvanites have truly taken ownership of it, as illustrated in this poem: http://ikamvayouth.org/blog/2013/07/12/my-future-my-hands-nokukhanya-ngcobo

[4]    Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2012: pp. 96-98

[5]    For an analysis of the impact the Khan Academy programme can have, see the Siyakhula Education Foundation's blog post http://www.wearegrowing.org/2013/04/23/experimenting-with-khan-academy-in-diepsloot/


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In Short

In this learning brief IkamvaYouth describes the challenges of placing township youth into opportunities that genuinely set them on the path out of poverty. Based on their experience and growing success, they propose best practices for organisations working on the ground, as well as needed shifts in thinking and policy for government, public and private educational institutions, private sector employers and bursary and other financial assistance providers.

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