Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Project Empower

Project Empower: Helping rural youth with the transition to tertiary education

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Facilitate access to educational opportunities | 29 June, 2012 - 15:43

Background on the project 
The Learning Partnership and Access Programme is a multi-pronged teaching and learning programme aimed at a small group of selected learners/youth from two rural schools in the village of Ndumo, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, near the border with Mocambique. 
The programme has been intentionally located in Ndumo as northern KZN, and the uMkhanyakude district in particular, is one of the most impoverished and neglected regions in the country which is characterised by high rates of unemployment, out-migration of the able-bodied/skilled populace, high rates of HIV/Aids and so forth. As is well documented, many rural South African schools are severely under resourced, marginalised and isolated. In addition, such schools have poor access to accurate information on the requirements for tertiary education. Education in South Africa also tends towards being formulaic and this tendency is exacerbated in rural schools by the lack of resources.
The programme is designed to introduce these learners/youth to a more holistic learning experience and to introduce the learners to the core development issues affecting rural and urban populations today while simultaneously using these issues to enhance existing academic skills and what is conventionally known as life skills. The enhancement of academic/life skills is complemented with a more practical introduction to tertiary education institutions to facilitate access to such institutions. In simple terms the programme can be best described as an academic/physical access bridge between two rural schools and a university which through an action research process aims to develop a generic template to be replicated in similar situations in future.
In December 2003 I initiated my own academic research programme in Maputoland (northern KZN). During an informal session on perceptions of pollution with primary school learners in the village of Mboza I was approached by the headmaster of the school who requested that I assist young learners in gaining a familiarity with key environmental issues. This marked the beginning of my outreach work in the Maputoland area. Over the next few years several of my graduate students worked with the primary school learners while I initiated a “study” programme with local youth in the area. The emphasis of the latter was to develop the basic reading, writing and analytical skills of youth to enable them to participate more effectively with local development initiatives (such as the Integrated Development Programmes compiled by municipalities). 
In 2006 the environmental education and life skills programme at the Mboza Primary School was handed over to the Flatfoot Dance Company who have subsequently initiated a variety of similar programmes in the village of Ndumo. Although youth who remained committed to my “study” programme were rewarded with the opportunity to study through Unisa they remained a very fluid and unstable constituency and ultimately only five youth from this particular tranche of my programme were registered with Unisa. A variety of permutations of the programme were then conceptualised and implemented with varying degrees of success. The current process is based on working with grade 11/12 learners - a far more stable constituency - for a year, starting in August of one year and ending in July the following year to enable learners to concentrate on their matriculation exams.
The programme strategy
The project aims to enable academically promising young women and men from the disadvantaged and remote Ndumo community to access relevant tertary qualifications in order to contribute to the continued development of their community. The project provides:
  1. academic and life support for promising learners in grade11/ 12 in the Ndumo community;
  2. support for these learners in accessing relevant places in tertiary education;
  3. ongoing academic and life support for tertiary learners.
With this support, the project hopes to ensure that promising learners receive matriculation results that will qualify them for places and financial support in tertiary education institutions as well  too ensure that the learnings from the NTEAP can be replicated to advance the access of other rural learners into tertiary education.
Current participants in the programme are selected from the two high schools in Ndumo. The headmasters of the respective schools are highly supportive of the programme. The key criteria used to assess possible participants  include fluency in English, a sound academic record, and a willingness/ability to commit to the programme. Due to financial constraints the number of participants was limited to 8 (four per school and four young men/women). 
During the year the learners participate in a series of weekend workshops where the theme of “development” is used as a vehicle to develop a host of academic and other skills. Learners are encouraged to debate, lead discussions, deliver presentations, read, summarise readings, develop critical thinking skills, engage in problem solving and so forth.
In addition to these weekend workshops the learners also participate in a week-long shared learning experience in the Maputoland region with UKZN students registered for the relevant graduate course in agriculture and rural development. Specific themes from within the rural and agricultural development discipline - specifically those relevant to the Maputoland area - are introduced to both sets of learners during this period. A platform is therefore created which allows for the meaningful sharing of different experiences. It also provides both sets of learners with an opportunity of engaging local development initiatives in a more structured manner; a process enhanced through the engagement with local experts and institutions including local farmers, conservation officials, local politicians, municipal authorities, agribusiness interests, health practitioners, and local stakeholders amongst others. 
The programme demystifies the perceived exclusivity of universities and allows for the exchange of ideas, opinions and experiences in a structured and pedagogically sound manner. The emphasis is on respecting different knowledge systems, reflecting on daily experiences, open discussions, co-presentations and so forth. For the majority of the learners this equates with their first visit to the local municipal offices, the agricultural research station, the Jozini Dam, the One-Stop centre, a traditional healer as well as their first engagement with key stakeholders in their area. The student group is often compiled of students with different nationalities and from different race groups providing a multi-cultural dimension to the learning process.
Complementing this shared learning experience is a further week-long session held in Durban. This visit entails an examination of urban development issues as well as exposure to a university environment. Learners visit local museums and areas illustrating particular urban development challenges and initiatives in the eThekwini Municipal area. The learners also participate in formal university sessions complemented by additional discussions and the viewing of relevant movies/documentaries. A session with the universities career guidance officers is also arranged.
To summarise the programme consists of the following:
  • a weekend visit to Ndumo to introduce participants to the programme and to select participants
  • 10 weekend workshops where the theme of “development” is used as a vehicle to develop a host of academic and other skills
  • a week-long programme which will twin graduates from the Agriculture and Rural Development course at UKZN with the youth from Ndumo to learn about rural development issues
  • a week-long programme in Durban to learn about urban development issues and to gain familiarity with UKZN and information on access to the university.
To enhance English reading skills newspapers are brought up on the weekend visits. Participants in the programme read these overnight and then share the most interesting story with others the following day. A book club/library has also been established and currently contains more than a hundred books/journals. This book club/library is managed by learners in the programme.
Implementation to date:
Two project co ordinators, both residents of the Ndumo community,  have been recruited to facilitate local organisation of the project as well as to provide a link with Dr Witt from UKZN. As in previous years the 2011/2012 programme was initiated by a visit to the two local high schools where learners were invited to indicate an interest in participating in the programme. Learners interested in the programme were asked to submit their names and were subsequently interviewed to determine their suitability for the programme. These interviews were conducted by an interviewing team comprising Dr Witt, a previous graduate of the programme and one of the co ordinators. At one of the schools a teacher also assisted in the interviews. We were looking for dynamic individuals who were performing relatively well academically and who expressed a commitment to participation. It is important to recruit an equal number of male and female learners and although this is sometimes hard to achieve, the project aspires towards gender equity, and had an equal number of male and female participants this year.
Successful candidates were subsuently informed of their selection and an introductory workshop was held. As is described above, four workshops have since been held where participants were introduced to the relevant themes and processes. 
Two class projects have been assigned . The first required particpants to map local vegetation patterns and to undertake practical projects aimed at enhancing an understanding of the value of local resources. The second project introduces participants to climate change and requires learners to measure rainfall patterns and compare these to historical records. These projects have been designed to provide additional practical support to learners in geography, life sciences, mathematics and maths literacy and tourism studies.
The class content has introduced learners to basic concepts and terms which relate to development. These have been introduced through participatory teaching methodologies using group work, presentations, role plays and open debates. Learners are encouraged to critically engage throughout the classes and to pay attention to new words and concepts learned through the process. Learners are also required to show an awareness of their own learning processes and to analyse and explain how their learning is changing their understanding of their own contexts.
In addtion, learners have reported on news events as captured in the print media (newspapers provided by the project) as well as book reviews on books which are available from the project library (books also provided by the project). 
Learners have also had to write a brief synopsis of their career choices, reasons as to why they have made these choices and their own knowledge of the entry requirements.
In Conclusion
The emphasis of this year’s work is to look at the challenges faced by rural youth as they attempt to access further education opportunities. These will be analysed and presented in a paper to be submitted at the end of August.  Next year it is hoped that the project will produce a project manual that will support implementers of similar projects in equally marginalised rural contexts. Both the research paper and the manual are final outcomes and are currently all work in progress.

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