Sumbandila provides children from backgrounds of severe economic and social deprivation with a high quality educational enrichment programme alongside a strong mentorship programme, nurturing leadership potential and entrepreneurial skills while encouraging social responsibility. There are currently 136 children across Grades 8 to 12 on the programme, the vast majority from rural areas characterised by deeply entrenched social problems and poverty, a degraded environment and schools which are in terms of resources, ethos and results mostly among the worst in the country. All of these factors combine to negate opportunity and achievement and nothing other than intensive, highly supportive programmes will overcome the disadvantages inherent in the poverty and discrimination which still prevails. Sumbandila therefore invests in a concentrated programme of academic support, mentorship and the development of cognitive and life skills for poor but academically able learners. Overall, Sumbandila provides access to opportunity through the direct impact of the academic, pastoral and co-curricular activities and through networking with other organisations. We build self-worth in our students, mitigating high risk behaviour while educating about risks, and we build a work ethic through recognition that hard work will bring opportunities and a better life. Without downplaying the social development and academic objectives, the programme focuses increasingly on improving English language and literacy skills amongst the younger learners and keeping the older learners in school while developing their choices and connecting them to appropriate after-school opportunities.
Developing Literacy for Grades 8 & 9
Despite their academic potential, with little access to books and magazines and insufficient exposure to English at school or in their home environments many of the students have not been enabled to develop the necessary English skills to successfully cope with their school subjects. Inadequate English language and literacy abilities amongst both learners and teachers is recognised as a major stumbling block, hindering the potential even of those gifted in Maths and the sciences: “Language is not everything in education, but without language, everything is nothing in education.” The importance of reading development is well recognised internationally and in South Africa and poor language ability is linked to poor performance in all school subjects as well as at university. Systemic surveys of learners and schools undertaken by the Department of Education indicated that 63% of secondary school students are below the required English language competence for their Grade and that only 7% of South African schools have libraries stocked with books.
Connection to further opportunity for Grades 10 to 12
Despite the fact that there is a significant amount of funding available for secondary school leavers who qualify to pursue tertiary educational programmes and internships, the absence of career guidance in schools and the lack of knowledge about such opportunities excludes many talented young people from fulfilling their potential. Educators in the majority of South African schools lack the training and resources to provide their learners with effective advice and counselling about career choices and this is particularly true in the rural areas, cut off as they are from the main economic centres. According to Dr Blade Nzimande there is inadequate support to bridge the divide between school and institutions of higher learning and this is acknowledged to be an important factor in the very high failure rates at South African universities and colleges. A major contributor is the lack of information and guidance about what is needed for admission to higher education and training institutions which leads many learners into highly unrealistic career aspirations. The lack of guidance, hearsay, family pressures and incorrect information also result in long queues at universities and universities of technology and fewer numbers exploring other education and training opportunities, such as a college education and learnerships.
Sumbandila's Programme strategy
The Outlier programme objective is to provide learners from backgrounds of socio-economic and educational deprivation with regular, intensive academic and life orientation support structured to their specific needs for the full five years of secondary education. The programme strategy continues to evolve as a result of the organisations experiences and it is still proving difficult to attract operational funding for enrichment programmes such as the Outliers. This is largely because academic results from such programmes nationally are not seen as good enough. In our judgement, although Sumbandila can claim to be exceptional in this respect (with students averaging marks of 66% across the board at their schools since the end of 2010), performance continues to be adversely affected by poor literacy skills. Therefore we increasingly focus strongly on literacy in the first years of the programme, thereafter concentrating on academic and social support and future opportunities for the students. We will be ‘splitting’ the programme further into early and late secondary phases in order to better achieve our objectives and to align what we are effectively doing with the priorities of potential donors. Grades 8 and 9 will in the future focus to a much greater extent on literacy and Grades 10 to 12 will focus more on keeping the students in school through assistance with subject selection, career advice, teaching the national curriculum and connection to post-school study and work opportunities.
We expect the outcomes of the programme strategy to include better language and literacy skills that are currently a major stumbling block to otherwise gifted learners, not only to completing school successfully, but critical to performing well at tertiary level and upping their life chances generally. The provision of information, counselling and assistance for the students to make and follow sensible choices about the subjects they take in school and the route they will follow after school is equally important and we see the programme outcomes as being not only better academic results and connection to opportunity but, critically, developing the information background and thinking skills which are the basis of appropriate and sustainable career choices. Additionally, the close relationship with a successful independent school and networks with organisations providing assistance with tertiary study opportunities means that we are able to develop an alumni support system that will continue to monitor the students after they leave us.
Implementation to date
Despite a school average across the Grades of 70% for English in the first 6 months of 2012, 1100 regularly borrowed titles in the Sumbandila library and the introduction of software that allows students to progress in English at their own pace, the use of the Edinburgh 4 standardised reading test software has indicated even lower levels of literacy amongst the students than previously thought. Each Grade has completed the appropriate secondary school level of the test and the results have been alarming with the majority of students well below their age level and a number, including Grade 12 students, falling off the scale of the test with a result of -11. With many Grade 12 students we are facing the situation where their other marks (particularly Maths and Science) qualify them for entry into various university courses yet their reading age remains at primary school level which will severely hinder their progress. As planned, language and literacy teaching has become much more of a focus and this year we plan to emphasize it even more strongly in the development of the programme, concentrating on the Grade 8 and 9 students. We will also be using the primary school version of the same test to more accurately determine the reading ages of the students, to continuously monitor their progress, and to plan more interventions towards radically improving their reading, comprehension and writing skills.
Connection to further opportunity
With 136 beneficiaries progressing through secondary schools, Sumbandila is already providing learners with a comprehensive support system as they make subject choices and enter examination years. Information, resources, workshops and counselling about realistic career and livelihood opportunities are an integral part of the programme. A major goal is to retain alumni in a support system to ensure that they manage in further education and in jobs: the failure and drop-out rates at South African Universities being extraordinarily high. Sumbandila aims to provide mentorship through these transitions and keep its graduates in a network as mentors and role models themselves, providing inspiration to subsequent Sumbandila cohorts.
With the original intake now in Grade 12, their immediate future is a major focus of the programme and we are in contact with numerous bursary organisations, tertiary institutions and businesses offering apprenticeships. Sumbandila has and will continue to cover all the costs of applications and transport to bursary interview venues. In addition we are developing a peer support system for those that do study at tertiary institutions using alumni from our partner school as well as Sumbandila full scholarship alumni. We have encouraged many of our Grade 12 Outliers to also pursue courses at technical colleges or apprenticeships (a number have decided to study technical trades in which there is a skills shortage nationally) and not attempt university entry where their marks or skills do not qualify them. Unfortunately, their respective schools did not adequately explain APS scores to them or even the fact that you need certain percentages to qualify! They also require considerable help with finding opportunities, filling in application forms, writing motivation documents or even obtaining certified copies of documents. We therefore have regular sessions which focus on subject choice, career advice and the processes of identifying and applying for entry into tertiary institutions, apprenticeships and job opportunities. As a first step we undertook a personality profile of each Grade 11 and 12 student in order to give them a better idea of their strengths and what kinds of careers would suit their personality types, interests and academic and other abilities. The close relationship with Ridgeway College allows us to use the expertise of that organisation which annually provides its students with exactly such assistance.
Implications for programme success and other implementers
While we have made good progress in improving language and literacy skills we recognise that we need to do much more, particularly with the younger students, as these skills underpin progress in all other areas of learning. In hindsight we could have been doing a lot of what we now do and are planning to do from earlier in the growth of the programme. Some of our previous methodology and learning materials (such as first language English textbooks) proved unsuitable and we now have a far more suitable set of educational resources, including progressive learning software. However, with such low reading ages still prevalent and given that the students have been chosen for their ability (and can therefore be expected to progress quickly through material) we need to constantly provide resources and methods appropriate in content and level of difficulty and that holds the interest of their chronological age group. One cannot expect a 15 year old to work through a Grade 3 reader! We also need to ensure that the books borrowed from the Sumbandila library are in fact being read by all students.
Shortfalls in our assessment procedures in the first years of the programme led to difficulties in quantifying results, exacerbated by poor implementation and coverage of curricula at the students own schools. We now assess with more tools, more regularly and systematically and with more integration between subjects and teachers and are able to measure progress much more effectively and to predict future performance more accurately. We recognise that at the base of many of the problems we encounter, not least in terms of literacy and language, is the rote learning prevalent in schools which informs the attitudes of learners and hinders the kind of progress we desire. We need to constantly counteract the impacts of this system, not only the actions of teachers and schools, but also of a national curriculum and exam structure which allows rote learning to result in ‘success.’ Our experience reinforces the need for all organisations doing similar work to communicate experiences and share accomplishments as well as the methods and materials used.
Due to a lack of funding, our goal of opening an equipped and staffed career centre for our students and the wider community has not yet been achieved. However, our relationship with a rapidly developing small independent school whose expertise and infrastructure we utilise (without which the programme would be considerably more expensive and less sustainable) is a particularly successful example that can be followed by others. We have been able to draw on the experience of the staff in assisting with subject and career guidance and on the networks established by the school with tertiary institutions, bursary organisations and local businesses. To this we have been able to add the skills and understanding we have gained through the Outlier programme.
Those who have witnessed the development of the first cohort of Outliers recognise that they are now a group of young people who have emerged from the anomie which characterises so many of their peers and are capable to a considerable extent of analysing and assessing their own situation, making clear judgements of what is possible and making their own decisions. Furthermore, an easily overlooked but fundamentally important result is the developing network resulting from the bonding of the scholars as a group. This will have considerable impact on the future success of the programme through the development of mutually supportive groups of community role models and trend setters.