The Makhanda Education Summit, held at Rhodes University over the weekend, has resolved to build on the tremendous success already achieved in reshaping the city’s educational terrain.
The Summit marked a pivotal moment in the city’s commitment to advance education for local youth. Delegates from the Early Childhood Development (ECD), Primary, and Secondary school sectors convened to build upon the remarkable success achieved in elevating the quality of education and access to resources within Makhanda, and find partnership-driven solutions to the challenges that still exist.
Efforts to turn the tide of education began in 2013, when Makhanda (then known as Grahamstown) was declared the 10th worst-performing education district in the country. Through targeted intervention programmes, under the visionary leadership of Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela, many milestones have been achieved. Among them:
- A city-wide literacy assessment conducted by GADRA Education and the Rhodes University Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education (PECE) in 2023 revealed that the literacy comprehension rates of the city’s Grade 4 pupils are more than double those of South Africa as a whole, as measured by the 2021 PIRLS study. As of 2023, 40% of Grade 4 children in Makhanda could read for meaning, compared with 19% nationally.
- The improving literacy levels have seen the city’s drop-out rate of pupils plummet by around 20 percentage points over the past three years.
- The matric pass rate in Makhanda has jumped from around 60% ten years ago to 80% today.
- The quality of Bachelor passes is rising, resulting in a tenfold increase in the number of disadvantaged local youth gaining access to Rhodes University as full-time students.
The country’s literacy levels also came under the spotlight at the summit. According to the latest research, only 19 per cent of grade four children nationally can read for meaning. In Makhanda, the figure is more than double that rate. This has been made possible through the impactful and collaborative work of Rhodes University, a wide range of literacy organisations, teachers, students, NGOs, and education activists. From 2020 to 2022, the retention rate of pupils in Makhanda’s public schools improved from 45% to 65%, reflecting a surge in literacy across the education system, encompassing primary and secondary schools.
Over the past decade, the city has been hard at work empowering minds and transforming futures.
Delegates representing the different phases of education put forward clear and concise ideas and solutions to the challenges that have been inhibiting further progress in education. The main themes centred around the need for nutritional and health programmes at schools and more access to early childhood development centres for young children. There were also calls for parents to be more actively involved in the lives of their children, including assisting them with reading and homework. However, delegates also stressed the need to consider the socio-economic conditions affecting families in Makhanda, and how this may impact parents’ ability to help their children. For example, parents often work long hours, some have not had the privilege of education themselves, while in other cases, children are being cared for by their elderly grandparents. These circumstances necessitate the need for well-crafted support programmes for learners. Teachers also stressed the need for programmes supporting their career development and requested access to more psycho-social support.
Deputy Director General (DDG): Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring at the National Department of Education, Dr Barney Mthembu, who was one of the keynote speakers at the Makhanda Education summit, said the Department is working on introducing a three-stream model which will prepare young people for the workplace after they’ve completed matric. He told delegates that the country’s curriculum needs to be strengthened and critiqued. Mthembu said while the curriculum teaches pupils about international history, many schoolchildren do not know the history of their very own revolution.
Mthembu said schools need to move towards language competence, adding that all schools should have a period set aside for reading. He added that the COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental effect on learners who had to push through their exams despite missing critical lessons. He applauded the ground-breaking achievements that Makhanda has made in improving access to education in the city.
Mthembu said there are still many questions that need to be asked, including whether the education system is adequately preparing children for the world of work. “We are bleeding with unemployment. The majority of matriculants are not going to find work. We are discussing a three-stream model with several stakeholders. We are restructuring the country’s schooling system. It can’t be that the country focuses more on the academic stream. We need a vocational stream, and we need an occupational stream. We need to provide diverse educational opportunities that cater for individual strengths,” said Mthembu.
Speaking at the summit, Dr Lise Westaway, from the Faculty of Education at Rhodes University, said one area of concern is that the teaching of reading to children stops at the end of grade three. Delegates agreed that these lessons should continue into higher grades to ensure that learners are able to read with meaning. They highlighted that this, in turn, would help learners better understand the content being taught to them in all their lessons.
The provision of water and sanitation was also discussed with delegates, highlighting that the quality of education is being impacted by the lack of constant access to basic services. Makhanda is experiencing water shortages, which often means that schools are forced to close early. The health of learners is also being compromised due to a consistent shortage of running water. Educators called on the municipality to do more to improve access to water, and to work on improving the city’s roads, riddled with potholes.
Makhanda is an incredible success story of how transformation can take place when different sectors work together towards one purpose. In his closing remarks, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, said: “The Summit has been successful beyond my wildest expectations. It has been the most enriching, rewarding, and fulfilling experience. I have been heartened by the energy, the enthusiasm, the willingness and commitment to share and build together.” Mabizela said the ideas put forward were practical and actionable and would help Makhanda realise its goal of being the best-performing education city in the country and on the African continent. The commitment and collaboration witnessed at the summit reflect Makhanda’s dedication to creating a world-class education system.