Beyond Painting Classrooms

Outreach Programmes in a New Age of Scrutiny and Relevance

A text message arrived from a well-meaning parent, offering her son’s old hockey equipment as a donation to our outreach partner schools. Our hearts sank, as these messages present an acute dilemma. Accept it, and face dumping these items on our school partners, most of whom don’t play hockey. Reject it, and face the awkward reaction of an offended parent. Hide it, and feel guilty while taking it to the rubbish bin, where it probably belonged in the first place.

At the same time, we feel completely off-track from what truly works in quality school outreach programmes: thoughtfully-designed programmes that transform school results over time, in collaborative partnership with the Department of Basic Education at circuit and district level.

The purpose of this article is to show how independent schools can move from good intentions towards measurable impact in the outreach space, in a new age of scrutiny, accountability and relevance. As ISASA has repeatedly noted, perceptions about independent schools must be managed carefully, and relationships in the shared education arena must be improved. Insularity is no longer an option.

Uplands Outreach has learnt many useful outreach lessons since our inception in 1994. We humbly offer these lessons to other independent schools, recognising that each school is in a different place on the journey towards ‘raising achievement for all’ (our guiding slogan at Uplands Outreach). True partnerships take time and effort to be effective and relevant.

Pupils at Uplands Outreach

Put people first

Get to know your local circuit manager and heads of public schools in your geographic area. Utilising a consultative approach, ensure that you understand and respect the local context in which you work, in order to open constructive dialogues. Use the correct terminology, spelling, and the proper full names of your partners. Names and individuals matter.

Do you have a basic understanding of the history and composition of your local school circuit and district? When last did you interact with your circuit and district managers? Have you, as heads of independent schools, actually visited your partner schools in person? The answers to these questions will tell you where you are on your outreach journey.

At Uplands Outreach, we work at the invitation of the circuit manager. In our case, we nurtured close bonds with Mandrew Nyambi, the esteemed circuit manager of the Insikazi circuit in the Ehlanzeni district. He has now been promoted to chief education specialist in the Ehlanzeni District.

For over a decade, we worked in deep partnership – and the results are both irrefutable and celebratory. The Insikazi circuit has climbed from 37th to 19th position out of 68 circuits; a remarkable achievement despite all the challenges.

Teaching at Uplands Outreach Centre

A striking indicator over time: in 2010, the Insikazi circuit pass rate was 56.3% whereas last year it was 80.6%. In human terms, this means that 81 out of 100 young men and women received their matric certificates – a ticket to a better life. Performance is improving remarkably thanks to years of collaborative investment.

The relationship with your local circuit manager is essential to any sophisticated outreach programme. Avoid swooping in, prescribing, and actually disempowering people. Take time to get to know your circuit manager; invite him/ her to your school, visit his/her office, interview him/her about their individual stories and backgrounds.

There are many heroic individuals working at this level, in arguably the highest-pressure position in the department. Nyambi is responsible for interacting directly with the principals of 34 schools in a former homeland area. The daily issues are immense. Work together to identify and establish priority needs, and stay in touch on a frequent basis.

Circuit-level needs are the source of all our programmes at Uplands Outreach – in this way, we have prepared the ground for effective uptake, working collaboratively with our partners. Our work is in direct response to real and evolving needs that will affect the most enduring impact over time.

Avoid a ‘deficit’ mind-set

Uplands Outreach acknowledges the skills and talents that already exist in our partner teachers and principals. Our experience shows that people (especially teachers and school leaders) have much to offer already, and may just need encouragement and support to blossom and thrive.

It is indisputable that fostering bonds of caring among teachers and learners is the most effective way to unleash talent. Nurturing the individual, while cultivating the joy of learning, is probably the most effective intervention we undertake at Uplands Outreach.

We take time to build the confidence of each individual participant in our outreach programmes, empowering them to become independent thinkers using 21st century skills. Sound familiar? This is actually the mission of most independent schools and our overarching community of parents. Model this mind-set and approach in your outreach programmes. What is good for one is good for all.

Take the long view with donors

Take the long view with Outreach donorsProgrammes may take years to become cohesive, especially if fundraising needs to happen. A forthcoming article in Independent Education magazine will delve into the challenging arena of outreach fundraising – including the perennial and almost unmentionable topic of independent schools actually paying the salaries of outreach staff. Where does your school stand on this revealing topic? Governing boards and school heads would be wise to shift outreach activities up the agenda when discussing annual budgets and staffing.

In terms of programme activities, solutions often emerge only when a programme is well underway, despite the bestlaid plans of donors and outreach programmes. For example, a maths programme may need to encompass social-support activities once a deep understanding is gained about the daily reality of South Africa’s children.

An adaptive mindset is handy. A big dollop or two of patience is needed while programmes unfold. Meaningful change takes time and is incremental, as is evidenced in our Insikazi Circuit results. It is quite frankly naïve to think that a one-point intervention over a single year (or handful of years) will suffice in the long-run – donors need to be made aware of these long-term solutions and commitments. Work hard to align and take care of your donors.

Monitor and evaluate your activities

At Uplands Outreach, we take monitoring and evaluation seriously. We take time to establish baseline measures, collect data, and analyse the results. A range of tools and measures can be used – from online snap surveys to exit tickets and journal entries.

Also, measure what matters, not just output data. Our participants submit short written journals to Uplands Outreach, reflecting on their learning and growth. These journals are a rich treasure trove of knowledge and feedback.

The journals develop reflective practitioners who have a compass to guide them, instead of a map. We also engage the services of independent evaluators each year, ensuring that we examine the efficacy of our programmes and stay audit-ready for our donors.

Be mindful of poverty

In terms of results, don’t underestimate the tremendous effects of poverty on a learner’s performance. The academic endeavour (in, for example, mathematics enrichment programmes) is a hollow shell without ongoing social support.

The shocks of the pandemic are most felt in rural areas, by those in our society who are already vulnerable. This effect will be amplified in rural schools that operate in quintiles one to three – the struggling bands.

Update your outreach mind-set

Pupil from Buduza Secondary SchoolThere is no need to stay stuck in outdated mind-sets about outreach activities. New evidence is available about the efficacy of school reform programmes. It is the responsibility of school heads and indeed boards to stay abreast of international evidence-based interventions in school reform.

It is easy to give in to simplistic, paternalistic, gut-based opinions – ‘they’ need to clean up litter in their school grounds or paint a classroom. These activities have a place, but only once the hard work has been done of establishing relationships and setting priorities.

One has to accept that there is no linear, simple cookie-cut path to school reform – and that the beneficiaries of outreach programmes are not independent school pupils.

Community service is a different kettle of fish; while there is some overlap, naturally, the pupils of independent schools cannot be the main beneficiaries of your activities. Learners in our partner schools are the main beneficiaries. This is a contentious point for many independent schools, but separating outreach from community service is a key junction in your outreach journey.

In conclusion, it may seem obvious to say that each school, whether independent or public, (and in fact, each individual working in education), has a unique context and set of issues to be explored.

We encourage you to take time to revisit the outreach space in your school, moving from a peripheral after-thought (sad but true) towards active, progressive engagement. The results will be manifold. To end with John Dewey’s famous quote, written a century ago:

‘What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must we want for all the community. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.’

It benefits us all to have a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to outreach.