/ 10 April 2014

The Stem revolution

Without a pool of suitably qualified youngsters
Without a pool of suitably qualified youngsters

Corporate South Africa invested about R3-billion into education and training initiatives in 2013, bolstering a sector sorely in need of development. The figure, published by corporate social investment (CSI) consultants Trialogue, did not differentiate between early childhood, basic schooling or higher education activities.

Making up almost half of the total R7.8-billion CSI spend, however, it reflected the current priority given by companies to education. Government action to boost training in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) was given impetus in March this year when the departments of basic and higher education as well as of science and technology joined forces to establish an inter-ministerial task team to develop an integrated strategy.

This followed concerns raised by the Cabinet over the delivery of these critical skills through the schooling system and the results of the 2013 annual national assessments. Education Minister Angie Motshekga noted in last year’s ass­essment report that performance in mathematics in grade nine was poor, and that her department would be introducing interventions to address this.

Judi Nwokedi, an international CSI consultant and chairperson of the Investing in the Future judging panel, said: “Twenty years into South Africa’s democracy, we need a Stem revolution to grow the country’s global competitiveness. We need to develop a Stem movement among the youth in the age groups of 13 to 18, mainly in high schools.”

Skills shortage

The business case for the private sector to step in to arrest the slide in Stem marks is clear: without a pool of suitably qualified youngsters to fill their ranks, organisations are going to struggle to compete. The shortage of skills is already being felt across most industries, and the calls to end youth unemployment will continue to fall on deaf ears if this demographic does not have the skills needed in industry.

Andrew Skudder, sustainability director at construction, engineering and mining contractor Murray & Roberts, said the holy grail in the education development space is to look at the development of the entire school system. This means a holistic approach that addresses everything from the competence of the teachers, the ability of governing bodies to fulfil their mandate, and the management of schools and their infrastructure.

Companies such as his are reliant on an employee base with, at the very least, basic maths and science skills. Murray & Roberts invested almost R160-million in training and development in 2013 — more than half the R300-million it directed toward CSI initiatives. Skudder said the company’s approach to delivering the basics of Stem starts in early childhood development, with a focus on building literacy and numeracy skills.

“This is the fundamental grounding of these skills. There is so much focus on grade 12 pass rates, but the reality is that the foundations are not in place,” he said.

Initiatives to improve maths

Vukani Cele, acting chief executive of the Moses Kotane Institute in Durban, believes there is tremendous scope to improve co-operation between corporate South Africa and the school system to start preparing future leaders from a young age.

The Moses Kotane Institute was established under the auspices of the KwaZulu-Natal department of economic development and tourism in response to the need to lay the Stem foundations in poor, underprivileged and rural areas in the province. Its role is to intervene at basic education level to identify promising youngsters and ensure they are given the opportunity to receive the necessary training.

It also provides skills training to teachers. “We have also helped matriculants who performed badly in maths and science, using some of the top teachers to assist them improve their marks in these subjects,” Cele said.

Part of the solution is to start the interventions at an early age, he added. “Yes, we know there is a lot to be done, but there has to be a starting point and that is the challenge we face. We have limited resources, and welcome interventions and collaboration with corporates whereby we can say, ‘let’s find them young before they are damaged’.”

Skudder agrees about the value of partnerships and collaboration: “It is good and well for individual organisa­tions to do corporate social investment, but the scope of the problem requires collaboration to achieve systemic change.” 

The engineering firm has established partnerships with the University of Stellenbosch to roll out mobile science laboratories that travel to outlying schools, and participates in the National Education Collaboration Trust.

“Corporates need to take the lead from the education department. Whatever we do has to be in collaboration with them so we are not squandering resources,” Skudder said.

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