Four universities, 13 schools

The Warwick in Africa project

Says legendary learning theorist Deborah Meier, “The basis of the partnership needed by all manner of adults working on behalf of the rearing of our young is the recognition of our shared task. The phrase is ‘mutual respect’… We need, in short, a sea-change in the way we see teaching and learning.”1

Meet Mary McGrath and Patrick Dunn, who with other colleagues have created the Warwick in Africa (WiA) project; an innovative, philanthropically funded education programme. Developed over six years from a small student volunteer initiative, to a multi layered, service-learning programme aligned to the curriculum of British student-teachers, WiA has thus far supported over 90 000 learners and teachers with maths and English education in South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana. Dunn describes the project: “We teach young Africans and provide formal and informal training and coaching for their teachers. Our success is driven by the belief that maths and English skills are great liberators from poverty. Designed to maximise impact, our approach has proven to be replicable, scalable and sustainable.”

A common passion

Now meet Professor Vaith Sankaran who works a world away from the quintessentially English town of Coventry, England, location of WiA and its ‘parent body’, the University of Warwick. Sankaran calls the University of Venda (UNIVEN) and its Vuwani Science centre, situated in the vast rural, rugged hinterland of Limpopo province, South Africa, home. Across the country, in rustic Stellenbosch, Western Cape, Rolene Liebenberg is manager: school partnerships, in the Division for Community Interaction at Stellenbosch University (SUN). Moving north to Johannesburg’s urban sprawl, Corin Mathews is a senior primary mathematics methodology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), where he also coordinates the Advanced Certificate in Education programme.

These passionate people, the universities at which they labour, and the 13 schools with whom they interact, are creating the ‘sea-change’ of which Meier speaks.

Liebenberg and Sankaran were introduced to McGrath and Dunn when WiA visited UNIVEN and SUN during 2010 and 2011. “I compared our community engagement projects with the proposed activities of WIA and what they offered inspired me to get involved,” says Sankaran. Thorough research also convinced Liebenberg that a partnership between SUN and WiA could make a difference to schools in the area. “I could see that the project was based on a sound philosophy: one that provided teachers with an opportunity to share knowledge and new teaching ideas. I also liked the fact that WiA advocated teaching and learning support for Grade 8 and 9 students. Too often the focus falls only on matric students.” Upon meeting the WiA team back in 2006, Mathews was immediately struck by a sense of possibility. “One needs first to have a desire to make a difference. Then, having sufficient financial support means the programme can be effectively driven. And having extra staff at schools means extra expertise, which means that teachers can really make a difference to learners in the most under-resourced schools.”

Choosing schools for WiA

Sankaran, Mathews and Liebenberg all have experience of working with schools. Says Mathews, “Over the years, WITS has built strong relationships with schools like Barnato Park High School, Klipspruit High School and Thusang Primary School across a range of disciplines.” Says Sankaran, most of the schools in rural Limpopo lack adequate science laboratories. “This negatively affects the future of the youth in these areas. The performances of these schools in mathematics and the sciences in the matriculation examinations have traditionally been dismal.” SUN has worked with four schools on multiple projects – two primaries and two secondary– in the Kayamandi township for some time. The involvement ranges from afterschool student volunteer support programmes to teacher development.

Their knowledge and experience meant that Sankaran, Liebenberg and Mathews understood that introducing a foreign project into schools required diplomacy and patience. Sankaran remembers: “First we consulted the principals of the schools.

Then, through the office of the dean of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at UNIVEN, we sought the permission from the education department senior district manager to roll out this programme.” Mathews reports a similar procedure and, says Liebenberg, “SUN’s Division for Community Interaction has developed a partnership with the local department of education district office to support it and align with its strategic objectives. Preparation for the arrival of WiA therefore involved meetings with district officials, the management and staff of the schools concerned, as well as relevant SUN stakeholders such as the vice-rector of community interaction.”

Getting stuck in

Through preparation meant the WiA team could immediately get stuck in. In the Stellenbosch vicinity, they worked at Makupula High School. “I felt Makupula would really benefit from the experience and support, because it’s a relatively new high school in the Kayamandi township. It was only in 2011 that its first Grade 12 class matriculated,” explains Liebenberg. “WiA expressed a desire to work with schools in the most rural – and therefore largely unsupported – areas of Limpopo. Together we chose Ratshikwekwete Secondary School and Edson Nesengani Secondary School near the Vuwani centre, so that we could provide additional support to the WiA team if necessary,” reports Sankaran. Similarly, says Mathews, in Gauteng, the WiA team wanted to work with under-resourced schools where the need for support was most urgent. “Multiple schools in two different urban settings were chosen: Minerva Secondary School, Alexandra Secondary School, Realogile Secondary School, East Bank High School, KwaBhekilanga Secondary School in Alexandra; and Fons Luminus Secondary School, Namedi Secondary School, Madibane Secondary School, Bopasenatla Secondary School and Progress Comprehensive School in Soweto.”

A progressive model

From the start, Makupula teachers found the interactions invigorating, and further feedback sessions between WiA and SUN students have prompted SUN to carry on the project at Makupula, explains Liebenberg, who’s also fascinated by the WiA model.

“WiA ‘preps’ its students for the local context, and visiting student teachers are completely immersed into the life of the school and its community. Every year, prior to their arrival in South African schools, a new cohort of WiA student-teachers is briefed by those who have been in their shoes the year before. In this way, the WiA model builds partnerships with schools over a period of time, acknowledging that an understanding of the complex local context takes patience and commitment.

“The project also focuses on identifying highly talented learners and exposing them to challenging tasks that will allow them to explore their full potential. This is a critical element in a typical South African context: so much time and energy is spent on those learners who are ‘struggling’, that we often neglect those that have the potential to excel.”

Solving the challenges

Liebenberg would have liked to see some more experienced teachers added to the WiA team, and visits of a longer duration. “More experienced voices from the WiA perspective could enhance discussions.” To this end, the WiA project is sending six experienced alumni teachers and other Warwick University staff to provide master classes to Makupula teachers in 2012.

Mathews has important observations to make about WiA. He’s frank about the very real tendency for projects initiated outside our borders to be misconstrued as patronising. “There is always the tension of power relationships within partnerships and it’s healthy to recognise it. It is being addressed, in that the WiA students are encouraged to work within local structures to ensure they understand their role in relation to the context and the power that they bring.”

Sankaran highlights another challenge: “We would love it if the UNIVEN education students could actively participate in the WiA programmes along with local teachers so that the transfer of knowledge, experience and skill is at a maximum level.”

A profound sense of possible change

The WiA project has thus far had some profound consequences for all involved. Sankaran reports that students and teachers at the two Limpopo schools feel more confident about communicating fears and challenges to each other. “Suitable and sustainable collaborations between schools and universities serve larger communities, and build important bridges,” he adds. Liebenberg is excited about the project’s impact on teacher development, so crucial in our country. “Providing opportunities for local teachers to visit Warwick and to observe teaching there is another mechanism for stimulating teacher professional development. Hopefully this will lead to virtual communities of practices across the different contexts.”

And, says Mathews: “Learners in Gauteng townships experience a different approach to teaching mathematics and Warwick students experience how privileged they are, and how difficult township life is. Everyone develops a deep sense of contributing to possible change.”


1. Meier, D. (1996) ‘Partnerships between schools and universities.’ On Common Ground, 6 (Spring 1996). Available at:

Category: Winter 2012

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