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Ridgeway and Sumbandila: a unique experiment in outreach

| March 26, 2013 | 1 Comment

By Mike Linden

Nowadays, we know that certain values and attitudes and social and personal skills necessary for the development of the student’s full human potential, are more effectively acquired through organised, goal-oriented interaction with the community than through classroom lessons.

Such programmes are an established and valuable part of the ethos in many independent schools. But, as John Rees warned many years ago, there are real dangers: We add other people’s problems to the curriculum: descend from our ivory towers to create dependence amongst the poor, elderly and handicapped – and withdraw. Aren’t we simply training adolescent Lady Bountifuls for a life of middle-class do-goodery?1

Ridgeway reconceptualises outreach

Then there is the problem for those schools that are making a real effort to include and integrate children from backgrounds of real deprivation and poverty. While we do not want to condemn those students to a return to life in such areas, we must be aware of the psychological dangers of ignoring their backgrounds or viewing them as purely deficient. Ridgeway College has, we believe, pioneered a distinctive outreach programme that goes a long way towards minimising these problems. Ridgeway was founded in Louis Trichardt in 2000; an initiative of a group of parents who wanted an English language education for their children in a less regimented environment than could be found in local government secondary schools. Though still a small school of 170 learners, it has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence and cultural diversity.

Leigh Bristow was Ridgeway College’s founding head and provided much of the direction, the energy and the ideals that are still dominant. She left after three years, but kept close connections with the school as a trustee and member of the board and when in 2008, she founded the Sumbandila Scholarship Trust (SST); it was natural to look to Ridgeway as a partner in the enterprise. Then, in 2009, she was persuaded by the board to return to the headship of the college. The SST’s mission is to provide deprived children with a quality secondary education alongside a strong mentorship programme, nurturing both leadership potential and entrepreneurial skills while encouraging social responsibility and awareness.

Systemic poverty a problem

The problems the trust addresses arise from the systemic poverty that cripples the efforts of intelligent and determined children to benefit from their secondary education and to continue successfully into tertiary education and careers. Public schools are under-resourced and staffed by often poorly trained and demotivated teachers. Deprivation and broken families are factors that prevent many children from completing school successfully. Even for those who do so, the failure and drop-out rates at universities are extraordinarily high, indicating the inability of many schools to prepare their students for the transition.

First, a residential programme

Sumbandila addresses these problems in two donor-financed ways. The residential programme is for those scholars from backgrounds of extreme poverty, on the basis of academic achievement and outstanding potential, for full bursary support. The scholars board in rented accommodation (until funds can be found to build a hostel) and attend Ridgeway College, partly because of the connections that already existed but also because it is within reasonable distance of the children’s homes, because it is a small school with a good ethnic and cultural mix among learners and an ethos, tradition and capacity for responding to individual needs, talents and potential. The programme is buttressed by mentorship programmes, guidance, additional lessons, the development of entrepreneurial skills and educational trips. The progress of all the Sumbandila children, academically and personally, since the first nine joined the college in 2008, has been astonishing.

Ridgeway gains financially from this programme because, so far, it has brought 38 students into the school whose fees are paid by Sumbandila, plus another 14 who are able to attend Ridgeway because they have been offered accommodation – sometimes partially subsidised by Sumbandila – in the Sumbandila hostels. The 41 current students constitute just over 22% of the total school enrolment – a significant proportion. But Ridgeway also benefits; from the introduction of a far wider cultural and economic diversity. The school gets an injection of drive, resolution, determination and invaluable understanding as barriers come down. The Sumbandila students are unequivocally not poor relations: they are well up at the front of the school’s academic, sporting and cultural achievements. Yet their group identity is powerful and an important factor in the children selected for the Sumbandila Outlier Programme began in 2008 and were expanded to include a further 22 in the 2009 intake and another 27 in the 2010 intake. The subsequent intakes bring the number to 137 in 2013. The impact of the Outliers programme can be judged, in part at least, by an extraordinarily low absentee rate, Saturday after Saturday: these children clearly feel they are getting something worthwhile.

Ridgeway College provides the facilities used for the Saturday and holiday schools – the computer lab, the science and biology labs, the classrooms and, to a considerable extent, the administrative infrastructure. The teachers are predominantly members of Ridgeway staff. More importantly, the programme has brought in a significant number of applications from parents who would not otherwise have considered the school as a possibility for their children. It has led to valuable links with local schools and a reduction in the common local antipathy towards independent schools. Most importantly, perhaps, it has provided Ridgeway students with the opportunity to tutor the Outliers in maths, science, accounting and English. Ridgeway students also provide classroom assistance during Saturday and holiday schools, particularly in the very popular IT course; help with the general organisation; the cooking and cleaning; and the lending library. They are also involved in the organisation and administration of the annual testing, in eight separate venues, of over 600 Grade 7 applicants wishing to join the programme. For both Ridgeway students and Outliers, then, Sumbandila provides opportunities for ongoing interaction, an experience of the diversity present in the region and an opportunity for personal growth and mutual enrichment.


1. Author unknown (1982) ‘Community service – social conscience or public relations’. Address to a community service conference held at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire, UK.

Category: Autumn 2013

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  1. Sumbandila was doing a great job,is this kind of assistance still available?0791830916

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