Next stop: South Africa. I caught up with Lydia Abel – Director – and Debbie Staniland – Development Manager – from ORT SA CAPE. ORT SA CAPE is a part of ORT South Africa, and works with young people and educators from disadvantaged communities in the Cape Town region.
What are the distinctive educational challenges that you face in the Cape Town region?
Young people living here come from a very low educational base. Most children come from very poor homes, where they receive very little educational input. Parents themselves are often illiterate. Given that many parents often have to work very long hours, perhaps away from home, a number of young people are raised by their grandparents – who are likely to be even less educated.
Linked to the first challenge is the issue of language. The everyday language spoken in the region is a colloquial mixture of local dialects. This offers little opportunity for young people to develop proper language skills. If their ability to speak in their mother tongue is limited, it is extremely difficult for students to acquire the skills necessary for learning English as a second language. They will only hear English spoken in the couple of lessons they have at school in the morning. Even then, many of the teachers themselves are not proficient English speakers.
The size of classes is very problematic. There are never less than 40 children in a class, often more than 50. Schools are often stretched beyond capacity because they are loathe to turn away local children who would otherwise have to travel large distances to another school. In addition, there is no money available to government sponsored schools for employing teaching assistants. As a result, one teacher is left responsible for controlling a classroom of 50 energetic young people – not an environment conducive to serious learning. Another difficulty within the school system itself is that children can only spend one extra year in any phase (collection of year groups) of the school. This means that they are moved up beyond their capabilities, resulting in real problems when they get older and yet still lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.
A further challenge is that the regional authorities do not like outside organizations coming in to support teachers in the classroom – for example, to provide expert advice or to teach model lessons. This is because a new and very structured curriculum has been implemented across the region, with little room for outside input. This is a shame because the huge pressures on the schooling system necessitate teachers going beyond conventional pedagogical methods and thinking outside of the box. A little bit of outside help might just prove to very helpful.
Given these numerous challenges, where do you start? What areas of work has ORT Cape been focusing on?
One of our most important projects is running educational after-school clubs. Life at home, and the educational opportunities – or lack of educational opportunities – which children have at home, make a huge difference to their educational attainment. Children who go home from school in the afternoon to nothing are massively disadvantaged.
In response to this need, we offer constructive educational programs which take a community-wide approach. Reading and maths support programs are staffed by retired teachers and university students, who will be able to continue this work after our involvement finishes. It is crucial that we aim to make our programs sustainable in the long-term. We also encourage mothers to join their children at these clubs. Owing to high unemployment and seasonal work in the rural areas we work in, mothers are often at home with little to gainfully occupy them. By coming to these clubs, they can improve their own literacy and numeracy skills, as well as building confidence to offer more learning opportunities to their children in their own homes.
Of course, in addition to the young people and their families, we must work on upskilling teachers as well. To that end, we provide training in English and maths teaching. In order to have the biggest impact possible, we our concentrating our efforts on reception class teachers – who can positively influence students at the earliest stage of their school careers. In terms of raw numbers, we have over a period of 5 years delivered accredited training to over 300 teachers. We have also set up professional support networks for teachers.
A lot of your educational programs make use of robotics. Why is this?
Kids find robotics fun! They get excited about making things and using computers. Practical, hands-on activity stimulates young people, particularly teenage boys who are traditionally very difficult to engage.
Drawing on engineering, electronics, and bio-engineering, robotics teaches young people how to think and solve problems. They have to plan, design, make, assess and improve on their designs. They also write up and present what they have done. Therefore they are using and developing a whole range of cognitive processing skills.
We make sure that the activities in our robotics workshops and clubs link to concepts in maths and science, like vectors or acceleration, which are difficult to illustrate in poorly-equipped school laboratories. Using robotics is not only cost-effective but also encourages active learning.
The final important point about this is that we run our robotics workshops and clubs on a socially inclusive model. The programs are funded so as to be self-sustaining. As a result, for every child who pays, we are able to sponsor a child who cannot pay. We provide lunches – including both kosher and halal food – to ensure that everyone gets the same whilst they are with us. Given that robotics activities require teamwork and cooperation, we have found this to be an excellent way of encouraging young people from different racial, religious and financial backgrounds to not only mix and get to know each other, but also to really work together for a constructive purpose.