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Working together: Uplands Outreach and the Mpumalanga Department of Education Insikazi School Circuit Office


Nicholas Ngwenyama was born and raised in a rural ex-homeland area1 called Zwelisha, located between White River in Mpumalanga province and the Kruger National Park.

Ngwenyama’s father worked as a cleaner and gardener while his mother stayed at home, looking after the children. His father sadly passed away when Ngwenyama was in high school, leaving his family with no income aside from a child support grant2 of R330 per month. No one in Ngwenyama’s family had ever attended a tertiary institution. His future looked unpromising.

In 2012, when Ngwenyama started his Grade 10 year at Fundinjobo Secondary School, he was selected to take part in a ground-breaking Saturday Maths initiative between Uplands Outreach (attached to Uplands Preparatory and College, an ISASA independent school in White River) and the Mpumalanga Department of Education Insikazi School Circuit Office in Kabokweni. Designed by the two entities in close consultation, the Learners for Excellence (L4E) programme was born. Funding was provided by the RMB Fund3 and the Chuma Foundation for three consecutive years.

Thoughtfully planned interventions

The programme consisted of a holistic array of thoughtfully planned interventions – everything from maths and English to leadership, study skills and computer literacy. A critical component of the programme was a weekly reflection journal, in which each learner wrote about what they had learned at Uplands and how they were applying it at school and home. They also wrote unsparingly about a host of bleak socioeconomic issues they were facing as teenagers in a rural setting. Every week, the Uplands Outreach facilitators read each journal in detail and provided personalised feedback to each teenager. At times, the content was heart-breaking, as the learners spoke about poverty, or pregnancy, or despair. One learner wrote about using salt to brush his teeth, as there was no money for toothpaste that month. Another learner wrote about seeking refuge in a relative’s house, as she was being repeatedly abused at home.

Paying it forward

Six years later, the L4E programme has yielded remarkable results. Forty-eight of the original 50 learners are still engaged in some form of tertiary study, beating (hands down) the dismal national odds for youth.4 Ngwenyama is now in his third year at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, Gauteng, studying for a BSc Pharmacy degree. In an effort to reach out and “pay it forward”, he has started his own nonprofit organisation to help youth navigate the transition to postschool learning. Here is a recent letter Ngwenyama wrote to Uplands Outreach:

I would like to tell you that ever since Uplands Outreach has been involved in my education, everything has gone well for me. I passed my second year at Wits and I am now in my third year and enjoying my pharmacy course. I am also still with the REAP bursary programme5 that you helped me apply for, and they remain good to me. I recently introduced an NPO (non-profit organisation) named Znicho Youth Development (ZYD) that focuses on helping the youth out there, basically giving back to my community and nearby. This idea wouldn’t have crossed my mind if it wasn’t for the Learners for Excellence (L4E) Saturday Maths programme and the skills I have acquired from it at Uplands.

Passionate partnerships

Established in 1994, Uplands Outreach works closely with 34 partner schools in the Insikazi School Circuit area in Mpumalanga. Its vision is to boost performance and raise educational achievement for all South Africa’s children. As part of an independent school (Uplands Preparatory and College), the organisation is committed to extending the benefits of independent quality schooling to the greater community.

For maximum impact, Uplands Outreach works in one school circuit only, at leader, educator and learner levels in an approach known as “systemic alignment”. Nicky de Bruyn is the director of Uplands Outreach, and Mandrew Nyambi is the Insikazi circuit manager. Every programme that Uplands Outreach undertakes is designed and implemented in consultation with Nyambi. In addition, Nyambi sits on the Uplands Outreach executive committee, and provides solid input on a variety of issues. Respect, communication and consultation are key features of the relationship between Uplands Outreach and the school circuit office.

De Bruyn sings the praises of her outreach team, especially the operations manager, Violah Moya, for her role in all aspects of the implementation of the circuit programmes. A former teacher, deputy principal and school principal, Moya worked for the Department of Basic Education and met de Bruyn while on a school leadership course at Uplands. So began a remarkable, fruitful relationship. A characteristic hallmark of the Outreach team is their passion for teaching school leaders, teachers and learners to tap into their latent power. Moya is known for her dynamic, entertaining and no-nonsense classroom demeanour, and de Bruyn is known for her analytical, evidence-based approach to school leadership and teaching. Together with Nyambi and his laser-like focus on curriculum management and policies, they provide both practical and psychological support to the programme participants (school leaders, teachers and learners).

The Uplands Outreach team is passionate about its work and is committed to maintaining long-standing relationships with programme participants. It keeps relationships alive long after programmes have ended and donors have exited, thanks especially to the genial skills of Beauty Mashego-Mthambo, the office administrator. Mashego-Mthambo is seldom seen without her cellphone in hand, phoning participants who are late or absent. She soon corrals them back and ensures attendance rates that regularly surpass 90%. Mashego- Mthambo keeps a beady eye on all participants. Reflection journals are kept by all participants. They are a heavy load to go through, but the journals are a treasure-trove of information and serve as a critical feedback loop.

Several sustainable programmes

Because the programmes are designed by the circuit manager and implemented with the permission of school principals, the participants are committed. This consultative, collaborative approach has resulted in a number of successes that are proven over time. Programme achievements, to date, include the holistic School Leadership programme for in-service and aspiring principals, the Teachers for Excellence Maths PLC (now in its eighth year of existence), the Smile conversational literacy programme, the JUMP Mathematics programme, the Digital Literacy programme, and the refurbishment and workflow support of the Insikazi School Circuit Office. This year, Standard Bank6 has provided generous support for an exciting teacher development programme for grades 1–7 teachers, to boost their skills.

In the academic arena, three L4E facilitators have proceeded to use the rich data generated by the Uplands Outreach programmes to achieve academic success and to spread the lessons learned: one facilitator is about to finish her master’s degree in maths education from Wits, and another two are PhD candidates at the University of Johannesburg (in school leadership) and Sussex University in the UK (in life orientation). All three are actively involved in Uplands Outreach.

Here’s to the unsung heroes

De Bruyn gives thanks to Nyambi for his time, support and professional engagement. Circuit managers, she says, are the unsung heroes of the education department, often facing impossible workloads, unrelenting demands and complex socioeconomic issues far beyond education per se. She also thanks the loyal donors, friends and supporters who have contributed to the ongoing success of Uplands Outreach. “Reach out”, she says. “Our South African community consists of more than just sun and scenery, and extends beyond the beautiful campuses of our independent schools. There is much we can achieve together, to raise achievement for all South Africa’s children.”


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Category: Winter 2017

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