Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Ubuntu Education Fund

Ubuntu: Extending the Education Arc

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Facilitate access to educational opportunities | 13 December, 2012 - 14:10


Challenge and potential impact

The children in the townships of Port Elizabeth bear multiple burdens. The shadow of apartheid lingers. The HIV pandemic has decimated lives, families, and communities. The antenatal HIV rate is 28%. Unemployment at 80% is the highest in the country, as is the infant mortality rate. People are cripplingly poor. Women do not have equal rights and sexual violence is a malign part of the fabric of society. It is almost impossible to describe the severe shortage of basic necessities such as rudimentary health care and sanitation. Government feeding programs are woefully inadequate. Municipal clinics are underfunded, under-resourced places of last resort.

The education scenario is heart-breaking. The legacy of Bantu Education means that many adults are semi-literate at best. The Eastern Cape’s education system is so appalling that the national government has taken control of it. Abuse and neglect are familiar parts of school life. A study by JET Education Services showed that most 6th grade teachers do not understand 6th grade math and English. There is no concept of early childhood development. When Ubuntu hired Kip McGrath, a consulting company, to do educational assessments of the children in our area, they came back to us with these results: out of 1,042 students, not one could do math at his or her current grade level, and four students could read at grade level.

Ubuntu believes that if a generation of children in our community succeed in school, university and the world of work, they will be able to help transform their own communities for the better. The impact of giving some of the 50,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in these townships a fair shot at education is potentially transformative: it could change the townships from dismal places without hope to vibrant centres of hope and prosperity.

Ubuntu’s programme strategy and expected outcomes

Ubuntu Education Fund was founded in 1999 with the mission of giving township children the same opportunities to succeed as children born into privilege. We work out of the Ubuntu Centre in Zwide Township, where we are helping 2,000 children to reach their potential and give back to their communities. We recognized very quickly that if our educational interventions were to be successful, we had to provide comprehensive services to make sure our children were healthy and stable enough to take advantage of any educational opportunities.

In terms of academic interventions, we were starting in grade 7, and we were focused on trying to take these children to university as our primary focus.  Our after-school programmes, holiday camps, and university bursaries have been extremely successful[1].

  • Ubuntu scholars are 50% more likely than their peers to graduate high school. 
  • Ubuntu scholars progress academically at over twice the rate of their peers. 

Our programme strategy is the Ubuntu Model: a holistic approach to working with a community to raise a strong, committed, productive next generation. Ubuntu assists children on a long-term journey. Ubuntu's work is complex, but the Ubuntu Model has a simple core philosophy: to raise a well-rounded child, we must pay attention to every aspect of that child's life from cradle to career. 

As stated above, growing up in the Eastern Cape townships means overcoming great social, psychosocial, and medical challenges. The pathway is a plan to overcome these challenges. The pathway is a series of individually tailored interventions, deeply involving the family and community, leading to sustainable change.

Finding the limitations of our work

While we are proud of our many children who have grown into healthy, productive young men and women, we have grown increasingly aware of the limitations of stepping in when children are already in school. It is an immense triumph for our clients to reach university, but too many of them cannot keep up with their better-prepared peers. Despite intense preparations, many of our students languish in the bottom 5% of their university classes.

Years of experience, discussion among staff (the majority of which comes from the townships), and consultation with experts convinced us that we needed to extend our educational arc, and offer more to our children both before and after their school years.

Adjusting the existing model to overcome limitations

In response to our documented limitations, we began our two newest initiatives, Positive Start (our Early Childhood Development—ECD—programme) and UP (Ubuntu Pathways, our out-of-school youth programme).

Positive Start

Positive Start will help fill the huge gaps in early childhood services for our clients, and also improve the quality of services to the population we already serve.

Positive Start has tremendous long-term potential to transform communities. We already know that the comprehensive Ubuntu model works: our clients fare better than their peers academically, physically and psychologically.

Research shows that the first few years of a child’s life are crucial. We decided to explore the possibility of starting our own ECD programme. This process has been an organic one. In February 2012, we launched Positive Start with a class of 43 toddlers. Ubuntu is accredited by the Department of Social Development as an ECD service provider. The process has been long, and involved years of discussion, hard work, and strategizing by the entire Ubuntu family and our supporters. Positive Start is the latest of many steps:

Positive Start provides our children with a strong developmental and cognitive base for their educational careers.

The ECD programme is now the foundation of our educational plan. It is the natural step after seeing the potential as well as the limitations of our after-school programs. The ECD classroom is, however, only the first step of Positive Start. When our pre-schoolers turn six, we aim to be ready with our own kindergarten class, and grow from there. We hope our toddler class will be the first Ubuntu children to grow with Ubuntu, and those who choose to go to university will be in the top, not the bottom, 5% of their classes.

The Ubuntu Pathways (UP) Programme

Ubuntu has recognised that the majority of children who go through the township school system will not reach university.  The UP programme is a response to this reality. UP is designed to build key foundational skills, increase employability, and, most importantly, build the skills and stability to stay employed and thrive in the workplace.


Positive Start was implemented in early 2012, and UP is beginning as we produce this learning brief.

Positive Start

We spent many months studying best practices and screening, choosing, and training our team.

We visited over 45 programmes in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States ranging from LEAP Science and Math Schools (South Africa) and KIPP (Knowledge is Power charter school programme in the US) schools to township crèches and NGO programs such as Harlem Children’s Zone.

We screened 121 children and their families before deciding on our first set of students. All Ubuntu clients go through a thorough home assessment by a Family Support Specialist (FSS). All the significant adults in each child’s life are expected and encouraged to participate in Positive Start, through regular meetings, gardening sessions, and classroom visits.

All Positive Start children and families are fully registered Ubuntu clients. They receive the entire suite of Ubuntu services, based on their specific needs. This includes free medical care, home assessments, nutrition assessments and food supplements as needed, caregiver trainings, counselling sessions, and any other services necessary to promote stable, healthy households. The clinic’s services include vision and dental screening, routine immunizations, and comprehensive HIV and TB counselling, testing and treatment. Every client has his or her own Ubuntu Passport, which tracks every interaction with Ubuntu.

The programme uses the Creative Curriculum, which is an internationally recognized, research-based curriculum, grounded in objectives that are predictors of school success. Ubuntu counsellors have received intensive training on how to observe, monitor and evaluate each child's performance through a variety of different exercises and practical techniques.

Positive Start was launched in February. All indications point to a successful first year. Children show up eagerly every morning. They are learning, growing, and feeling increasingly comfortable at Ubuntu and in a structured environment. Our garden is already producing vegetables. Children are bonding strongly with each other and their teachers.

Sustainability and comprehensiveness

Positive Start is unique—it would be difficult to find another ECD programme anywhere in the world with the same holistic features:

  • An amalgamation of international and local best practices, adapted for our environment by teachers from our community.
  • A world-class clinic only steps away. The full-service Ubuntu paediatric clinic provides a safe space for children and their caregivers to take care of all their health needs, from nutritional counselling to TB tests, to the all-important Band-Aids and cuddles for the inevitable skinned knees.
  • Sustained, mandatory family involvement. Caregivers are required to participate in the program, through parent-teacher conferences, workshops and Family Days at Ubuntu. Many of our kids are HIV-positive. Family Days combine enjoyable activities with opportunities for TB and HIV testing and treatment, psychosocial counselling and nutritional advice.
  • A dedicated garden. A child who is unwell or hungry will not be able to enjoy or benefit from a preschool program, no matter how excellent. Children need full stomachs in order to excel in school. Many of our pre-schoolers are malnourished. Each child and his or her family is allotted a patch of garden, and given the tools and training to grow produce. This helps with nutrition needs as well as imparting valuable lessons about food security and self-sufficiency.
  • Comprehensive support. All ECD students are fully enrolled clients at Ubuntu, which means they receive the entire suite of Ubuntu services, based on their specific needs. This includes free medical care, home assessments, nutrition assessments and food supplements as needed, caregiver trainings, counselling sessions, and any other services necessary to promote stable, healthy households.

Ubuntu Pathways (UP) Programme

The UP Programme is our newest innovation, and we are launching it as we submit this brief.

As mentioned above, we at Ubuntu realised that some of our children are simply not destined to go on to university. If we are to provide truly comprehensive services to the community, we must pay attention to these clients’ needs. UP was developed out of this need. UP aims to:

  • Help young people get employed, and stay employed.
  • Help our school-age clients identify their abilities and desires and steer them towards rewarding career options.
  • Train Ubuntu staff to work closely with young people to provide career guidance as well as practical experience.

Ubuntu’s partner organization, Rare Recruitment, is helping train our staff in interview preparation, presentation skills, corporate networking, accountability to world-class standards, and everything else they need to provide excellent services to UP participants.

UP activities include interview workshops, social skills training, leadership training, career fairs, networking assistance, self-esteem retreats, assessments before and after job searches, and family support and counselling.All UP participants are Ubuntu clients, and so go through comprehensive health and family assessments before starting the programme. We provide them with any necessary medical, financial, and psychosocial support. Each client must have a baseline assessment.

Policy implications and lessons learned

The Ubuntu Model has been a success for 13 years. We started with a small fundraiser to raise a few thousand dollars for school supplies, and now we are an acknowledged model of community-centred development. We believe that the Ubuntu Model has implications for policymakers because it shows the importance of:

  • A concentrated, well-defined geographic focus.
  • Community involvement at every step.
  • Holistic rather than one-dimensional interventions.
  • Sensitivity to a particular context and culture.
  • Rigorous monitoring and evaluation, using business methodology in an NGO context.
  • Working with existing institutions to support and supplement them, rather than creating an alternate system.

The importance of high expectations

Our clients know that we believe in them. Township children are every bit as capable of excellence as children anywhere else, and we give them both opportunity and responsibility. If a child doesn’t attend enough after-school sessions, he or she is expelled from the programme. Children rise to what is expected of them, and while we remain compassionate about their often difficult situations, we do not cut them any slack, and they respond with hard work and diligence. Here is an anecdote from one of our ECD teachers:

I noticed after I wrote in Lisakhanya’s journal that she was not looking good enough to me (untidy). Whenever you look at her you would swear that no adult was being involved in her morning preparation for school, her hair was not looking good. It was dirty and she looked so withdrawn. I am not sure whether her neatness affected her classroom mood and behavior. I sent a message via journal on Monday 11th of June and on Wednesday 13th of June I noticed a difference as she looked beautiful and the way she presented herself was very impressive. She is very active in the classroom.

We believe our model is flexible and replicable, as we keep excellent records of every step we take, every intervention we provide, every strategy we discuss. We are completely transparent to our donors and our clients.

We are proud of our success, but acknowledge that, given infinite resources, we could have started out with a cradle-to-career education programme rather than adding components as we grew. However, this was impossible given the limits of both our knowledge and our capacity.

A recent Green Paper by the newly created national Department of Higher Education and Training lays out a policy framework for higher education in South Africa. The goals set out by Dr. B.E. Nzimande, MP, Minister of Higher Education and Training, echo Ubuntu’s own: in the context of South African history and politics, educational policy must be holistic and community-centred. At Ubuntu, we help give children the basics by working with the local school system to supplement their activities and help children reach their potential. Whether or not this potential involves higher education, we continue to fine-tune our offerings based on children’s needs and realities before, during, and after their school years.

[1] In 2011, we collaborated with McKinsey & Company to rigorously measure our impact, and create metrics to track our progress in the future. These figures come from that collaboration.


5 QeQe Street, Zwide, Port Elizabeth

 (041) 459-0627


In Short

After learning that their students who have gone through the holistic Ubuntu educational intervention are still struggling at university despite the fact that they are leaps and bounds ahead of their peers who have not participated in the programme, Ubuntu Education Fund decided to extend their educational arc and offer more to their children both before and after their school years.  This learning brief describes their Positive Start and Unbuntu Pathways programmes which was developed as a result of this decision.  It is longer than we normally allow, but in this case we are making an exception because the brief is that interesting and the work described that impressive. 

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