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Successful students lead the way for the next generation

Global Goals & Global Society
Successful students lead the way for the next generation

The education system in South Africa is in trouble. 50% of children do not complete Grade 12. (which is approximately half a million learners each year). 80% of schools in South Africa are dysfunctional. It has the world's most unequal education system: Only one black student out of every 200 who starts school will be able to study engineering. Ten white students can expect the same outcome. In one study, 11- and 12-year-old math teachers took tests similar to those given to their students. 79% of teachers performed below the level expected of their students.

IkamvaYouth provides a safe space for learners to go after class, where they can get homework help and a variety of other services and support to help them succeed. Since their humble beginnings, they have expanded from one branch to over fifteen, and now support over 5,000 learners per year through various programs.

The young adults who run IkamvaYouth do not pretend to be teachers. They simply provide "what educated parents provide": homework assistance, a safe place to go after school, and some individual attention. These are minor details that have a significant impact on matric pass rates and future earnings.

In the afternoons, the Nazeema Isaacs library on Khayelitsha's eastern outskirts comes alive. Then students from four Makhaza high schools – Chris Hani, Harry Gwala, Sizimisele, and Sinako – arrive for two-hour tutoring sessions to help them with their homework. They are divided into groups of four or five, each with a tutor.

Previously, there was a multiplication problem with negatives. "So, what's the problem?" she inquires of a student. "What do you get when you multiply a negative by a positive?" "Is it a negative or a positive?" The child pauses for a moment before responding correctly. Stick to the rules, she says again. Remember the fundamentals. When asked a question in isiXhosa, Qongwane responds sharply but not unkindly: "English, please."

Qongwane, a second-year University of the Western Cape (UWC) student pursuing a (Bachelor of Arts) BA in Psychology, and the students are participants in IkamvaYouth, an innovative volunteer education program. She is one of 60 volunteer tutors in Makhaza and one of over 700 across the country. The students here today are among more than 200 in Makhaza, ranging from Grade 8 to matric.

Qongwane, like many of the others, went through the Ikamva program. Now she volunteers her time and talent to tutor the academic generation following her - a kind of voluntary graduate tax, though Ikamva refers to it as "paying it forward."

The Ikamva Youth Project is a ray of hope in a system that has failed many young people. According to Nic Spaull, an education expert and economist at the University of Stellenbosch, only 49% of children who started school in 2003 graduated in 2014, and only 14% qualified to go to university (even fewer actually enrolled and graduated).

Last year, approximately 71% of those who took the matriculation exam passed, and 26% received university exemption. In comparison, 80% of Ikamva students passed, with 40% qualifying for university admission. "We're not doing the same job as teachers," says Joy Olivier, the organization's co-founder and director. "We don't teach any content; we don't teach the curriculum." Ikamva, on the other hand, does "what educated parents do - helping learners with their homework, helping them figure out what they are going to do after school, giving them individual attention," she says.

Last year, roughly 71% of those who took the matriculation exam passed, and 26% were exempt from university. In comparison, 80% of Ikamva students passed, with 40% being admitted to university. "We're not doing the same job as teachers," says Joy Olivier, co-founder and director of the organization. "We don't teach the curriculum; we don't teach any content." Ikamva, on the other hand, does "what educated parents do - helping learners with their homework, figuring out what they're going to do after school, and giving them individual attention," she says.

Teachers have large classes with "super-smart kids who get bored... to kids who have just arrived from the Eastern Cape and can't speak English and are missing the fundamental basics of numeracy and literacy," she claims.

Ikamva got its start ten years ago, when Olivier and her co-founder, Makhosi Gogwana, were in their early twenties and working at the Human Sciences Research Council, researching transformation in the scientific community. "Where will the next generation of scientists come from?" they wondered. "We were astounded to see such a small number of students graduating with science and math, or even being eligible for tertiary education."

There was also a significant disparity between schools in the suburbs and those in the townships. "We were young, naive, and optimistic," Olivier says.

Makhosi called Sinako High's principal and asked if they could tutor on Saturdays. "We sent out e-mails to all of our friends, asking them to come; everyone said yes, and we showed up with no idea what we were doing." They devised a program with students, and by the end of 2005, 100% of their first matric cohort had passed. Sixty percent were accepted to university, a remarkable figure by South African standards, and all said they planned to become tutors themselves.

And so began a cycle that has lasted a decade. The only requirement for students is that they attend 75% of the time; they cannot use Ikamva to cram for exams.

Nonetheless, the disparities are profound and difficult to overcome. Every student there, from Grade 9 to matric, told me that they are taught in isiXhosa at school. Their textbooks and exams, however, are in English. It helps to explain Spaull's finding that students who are taught in languages other than English or Afrikaans are more likely to be functionally illiterate by Grade 4.

Consider being taught in English in a suburban school but having to switch to isiXhosa to study a textbook or write an exam.

The policy states that English will be the language of instruction beginning in Grade 4, but as Olivier points out, there is frequently a large gap between policy and practice: "Yes, the policy states that teaching should be in English; in practice, it rarely happens." The policy is that corporal punishment should not be used in schools; however, the practice is widespread. The policy states that schools should not withhold reports due to unpaid school fees, but this is exactly what happens. "There is a huge chasm between policy and practice in education, and this is a major cause of our system's crisis."This language conundrum explains, in part, why tutors spend so much time simply explaining what is being asked. Today, several Grade 9 students appear to be stuck on an exponents math problem that instructs them to "simplify without using a calculator." (It's "ukwenza kubelula," a tutor explains, which translates to "simplify.") Or why, on another day, Grade 12 students are stumped by an accounting question that includes the phrase "40,000 shares were repurchased from a disgruntled shareholder. “Repurchased? I'm not sure," one says. "Buy back," explains Athenkosi Khese, the tutor. "So we have to subtract." They ignore the word "disgruntled" as a distraction. Khese, who is studying Management Accounting at Unisa, is one of the few tutors who did not participate in the Ikamva programme.He is, however, black, as are the majority of the others. "It really bothers me," Olivier says, "that white people aren't using this as an opportunity to address the inequality they've benefited from." Our tutors are usually from low-income families, so the opportunity cost of coming here to tutor instead of getting a part-time job to help you get through university is enormous."

According to Olivier, the 700 or so tutors across the country donate approximately R14 million in tutoring and mentoring time. Local municipalities donate the venues, such as the Nazeema Isaacs library. As a result, Ikamva's overhead costs are minimal.It receives "significant funding" from South African corporations, which require a "pipeline" of human resources, as well as foundations because "it's really clear what you're buying: matric passes, bachelor's passes, and then access to post-school opportunities."

According to Olivier, each of the 11 branches across the country produces at least one new engineering student each year.

It also reduces income inequality, she claims. In a survey of its alumni conducted two years ago, Ikamva discovered that in a country where the median income for black South Africans is about R2,300 per month (compared to a median income for whites of about R10,000 per month), its graduates earned about R9,000 per month. "In one generation, the income gap is beginning to close."

Ikamva assists students in gaining admission to universities by paying registration fees and ensuring applications are complete and submitted on time.

Most importantly, tutors who attended the same schools and grew up in the same townships serve as role models for younger students. "Before this, I was just playing in the street," Asanda Gqamane, a Grade 12 student at Harry Gwala, says. "I wasn't doing anything." Then I realized I needed to do something about my future and joined this group."

IkamvaYouth‘s mission and sustainable vision forms part of the global society and is to enable disadvantaged youth to pull themselves and each other out of poverty and into tertiary education or employment.

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