Rural pupils reap rewards
Teachers are being trained to deal with overcrowded and bilingual classrooms and improve their performance
Brian Ramadiro has been working in the field of education for almost 20 years. He started in adult education, moved on to youth work and, later, education policy research.
For the past eight years his focus has been on the interface of language and learning in primary education. Ramadiro is the deputy director of the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. Recently, Ramadiro decided to teach a grade three class in an underresourced, low-performing rural school for 18 months. This enabled him and his colleagues to create an ambitious but well-informed intervention programme, which the pupils and teachers at the school have come to call “magic classrooms”. Through this initiative, Ramadiro and his team have been able to redesign more than 70 classrooms, train and provide classroom support to more than a 100 teachers and source and create materials that work in overcrowded, bilingual classrooms using isiXhosa and English. In four years, there has been a phenomenal improvement in literacy and maths achievement among pupils and teachers’ self-confidence and effectiveness have increased. Much of this work is feeding into an isiXhosa-English bilingual bachelor of education programme being deve–loped at the University of Fort Hare and, meanwhile, knowledge from the research project is being shared with both the Eastern Cape and the national departments of education.
When and why was the education and rural development institution formed?
The project is a continuation of the Nelson Mandela unit of rural schooling founded in 2004. It is a partnership between the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the University of Fort Hare and the national and Eastern Cape departments of education. The aim is to conduct research and to use this to design innovative programmes to improve the quality of life in rural communities. For the moment, the focus is on education.
What are your key functions at the institute?
I spend a considerable amount of time doing administrative and managerial work such as planning, fundraising and report writing. I also make time to support our teacher trainers and teachers at schools, conduct research, write materials, supervise postgraduate students and co-teach in a rural school at least once a week.
How does the institution interact with a school?
Our team spends much of its time in rural classrooms doing classroom demonstrations and co-teaching with the regular classroom teachers. In addition, at the beginning of each term we conduct a brief training session focused on ways to approach the work of that term. Our goal is to revive, where this has existed before, or create a tradition and a methodology for clusters of schools to constitute themselves as professional communities of learning and to act as each other’s first line of support.
What motivated you to get involved in education?
I can’t think of when I wasn’t involved with education and therefore I can’t think of why I originally got involved with education. I suppose the reason I continue to be involved with education is that although education is not a solution to all our problems, it is difficult to imagine how many of the problems in our country can be solved without meaningful education.
To date, how many schools have benefited from or are part of the institute?
In addition to our work in the foundation phase, which involves 23 schools, we work with the senior phase in 20 schools. The latter work is focused on getting teenagers to read and write outside of school. To date we have published four books of pupils’ poetry, involving more than 800 children.
How many master’s degree students have come through the programme?
Three master’s students have been trained through the institute and two students are completing their master’s dissertations on aspects of the work of the institute.
Are you seeing tangible benefits or changes that you hoped for and, if so, what are they?
We see tangible results of the project’s impact almost every day. Children’s literacy and maths average scores at the end of grade three have more than doubled in four years. Teachers’ subject knowledge, pedagogical skills, morale and self-confidence have improved. Teenagers are reading and talking about books and writing about what they think and feel outside of school. Gratifying as these outcomes are, improvements in education, if not supported by improvements in other aspects of community life, are sooner or later overwhelmed by social pathologies arising from deep and widespread poverty and social inequality. This keeps me awake at night.
How do you relax?
I enjoy reading novels and plays in isiZulu, isiXhosa and English and taking long walks on the many beautiful East London beaches.
What is your message to teachers?
Do your absolute best every day.