Never too late to learn

Ma Tenjiwe (69) strolls slowly into her class with her work books in her backpack.

She sits down next to her neighbour and classmate and takes out her calculator to complete her numeracy homework. ‘Class” for her is a neighbour’s mud hut in Mqandvu, Eastern Cape.

Water for tea time boils in a kettle. A young, matriculated volunteer educator steps over one of the learner’s babies sleeping on the floor. ‘I never thought I would have an opportunity to learn before I died,” Tenjiwe says. ‘I thought my time for learning had passed.

Now things seem brighter.” She adds up the grocery prices she has written into her numeracy book, calculating what change she could expect if she paid R200, and then turns to help her neighbour who is not as quick at calculating as she is.

Meanwhile, in the north of Pretoria, at a site recently visited by President Jacob Zuma, a literacy class for Afrikaans adults is taking place. Johan (17) has never been to school. His young volunteer teacher says Johan’s family could not afford to pay school fees; besides, his parents themselves cannot read and so saw little reason for him to go to school.

At his first class Johan struggled to find the front of his book. He turned it over a few times until his volunteer teacher helped him. Like many of his white Afrikaans classmates, he can’t read. Johan’s ouma had to be persuaded to allow him to attend a two-hour class each day. He was far more useful cleaning the house.

At the end of his first class, Johan begged to be allowed to stay longer. ‘Ek wil nog leer,” he said.
In his next lesson he will start to learn how to write his name. Johan and Tenjiwe are two learners on the government’s Kha Ri Gude (‘let us learn”) adult literacy campaign.

Last year—the campaign’s first—360 000 learners enrolled and this year a further 620 000. Tenjiwe is one of about 50 000 learners in the 66 to 70 age group. Around half are between 25 and 55—the years in which they should be most economically active.

The 2009 cutbacks
Although Kha Ri Gude’s 2009 budgetary allocation is R16-million less than it was in 2008, it did not deter the campaign from attempting to double its 2008 outreach. With a target of 4.7-million illiterates needing to be reached before 2015, the campaign has applied rigorous cost-cutting mechanisms to lower its per capita costs to reach as many learners as possible.

One such cost-cutting endeavour was to increase the learner: educator ratio from 1:15 to 1:18. ‘It is still low enough for a volunteer educator to manage a group especially since the educator receives step-by-step directions for each of the 85 Kha Ri Gude lessons,” said Dumisani Ntombela, director of curriculum and assessment.

Kha Ri Gude has been able to halve its per capita cost to R685. Without a cent to spare, this still provides learners with free basic education for six months.

Campaign materials
The campaign provides each learner with a pack of four books, totalling about 650 pages. Kha Ri Gude has ensured that all book covers are laminated and that each learner receives a bag to protect their learning materials because classes can be held anywhere—under a tree, in a prison cell, in bus shelter, on the roadside, wherever learners are—and the books need extra protection.

Special needs
Learners with special needs are specifically catered for by the campaign. In 2008 close to 8% of the enrolled learners stated that they had some or other form of disability.

Although it takes an inclusive approach to learners with special needs, it was nevertheless necessary to have specialist volunteers to teach the deaf and the blind. With about 100 blind people volunteering to teach, Kha Ri Gude has managed to recruit about 1000 blind learners.

They learn not only to read Braille but also to use the Perkins Braillers supplied to the classes to produce Braille text. Kha Ri Gude’s director of special needs education, Dr Obert Maguvhe, who is himself blind, does the printing himself and in this way helps to keep the costs low.

Literacy for the deaf
Another global first has been Kha Ri Gude’s roll-out into the deaf community. This has created 150 jobs for the deaf matriculants and has ensured that deaf learners learn reading, writing and signing from a person who understands deaf culture. Ingrid Parkin, director for deaf education at Deafsa, says this is the first time that the deaf have been used to teach the deaf. She hopes to present a paper on Kha Ri Gude’s role in the education of the deaf at a conference in Canada later this year.

Poverty alleviation
Although Kha Ri Gude is essentially an educational intervention aimed at making 4.7-million South Africans literate, the contribution the campaign is making to the alleviation of poverty and the creation of short-term jobs cannot be ignored.

In 2008 close to R260-million was paid directly to volunteers in the form of stipends. It is anticipated that R325-million (or 75%) of its budget will be stipends paid to volunteers this year.

The volunteers come from exactly the same socioeconomic circumstances as their learners. They are unemployed matriculants who have little chance of formal employment at this stage. Sixty-six percent of the volunteers are under 35 years and 80% are female.

How did learners fare?
To date about 80% of the 2008 learner assessment portfolios have been returned. KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo had higher return rates and hence higher completion rates. The North West had the lowest completion rates.

Women learners tended to score 2% more than their male counterparts in both numeracy and literacy and Tsonga-speaking learners tended to score the highest in both literacy and numeracy.

Limpopo was the highest scoring province. But the results across the provinces differed only marginally, suggesting that all things being equal, all the provinces have done equally well.

Professor Veronica McKay is chief executive of the department of education’s Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign

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