Champion of the learning foundation phase dies

The death of education MEC Mandla Makupula has left a difficult void to fill in education in the Eastern Cape. Makupula was the longest-serving education MEC; he took over from Mahlubandile Qwase following a provincial cabinet reshuffle towards the end of 2010, and held the post until his death. Makupula (57) died in the early hours of October 8 following a long battle with cancer.

He has been attributed for bringing stability to the crisis that has riddled the Eastern Cape department of education and laying the foundations for improving education in the province. Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle said that there was no stability in the provincial department of education because the province kept changing education MECs and heads of department.

Makupula’s diagnosis was that the root of the problem lies in the foundation phase. Provincial superintendent Themba Kojana, who worked with Makupula for the last two years, said Makupula believed in getting the foundation phase right, which would lead to long-term, sustainable, improved matric results.

Kojana said: “He used to say let’s not only focus on matric results, but let’s build systems for sustainable improvement over a period of time,” said Kojana.

“He said everybody has a hype around the matric pass rate, but if we don’t focus on the foundations for learning, we will miss that boat completely. Let’s take criticism for matric results for now, but let’s build over a period of time.”

He described Makupula as the “champion of education for the learning foundation”, and said that he dedicated his period as the provincial education political head to addressing the imbalances of the past.

Provincial department of education spokesman Malibongwe Mtima said: “One of the things he [Makupula] said was, is that the distribution of resources in the province is skewed.” He spearheaded the rollout of schools for special learning needs and Focus Schools for agriculture and maritime studies.

When he joined the department of education, he realised that Eastern Cape has few schools for special learning needs and that most of them were concentrated in Port Elizabeth, East London, King William’s Town and other areas that used to be part of Republic of South Africa, but they were non-existent in the rural areas.

Makupula advocated the rollout of schools for special learning needs in rural parts of the province because there was a serious need. To date, seven additional schools for children with special learning needs have been opened in rural areas.

Another problem Makupula had to deal with is the dropping of numbers in most rural schools. Many rural schools had fewer numbers of pupils, as parents migrate to towns and cities.

The provincial department of education had to rationalise schools with fewer learners and some schools were closed down. Mtima said Makupula used the rationalisation of schools to create special schools and skills centres.

“Some of the schools that had to be closed down were built at costs running into millions. Makupula proposed that instead of shutting them down, they must be revamped to fit special learning needs or skills centres,” said Mtima.

Makupula also identified areas where there are lots of agricultural activities and proposed that the department opens agricultural schools in those areas. One such school is under construction at Keiskammahoek.

Mtima said: “Keiskammahoek is one of the areas that Makupula identified for its valuable crop farming and proposed that we build an agricultural school there, because the nearest one was Phandulwazi in Alice,” said Mtima. Kojana said that the department is working on finalising its strategy for agriculture schools.

The province has also opened two maritime schools during the time of Makupula’s leadership. He used to say that Eastern Cape has the largest ocean in the entire country but it is not leveraging its economy.

The Eastern Cape education department also implemented mother tongue-based bilingual education (MTBBE) for maths and science. The project was piloted in schools at Cofimvaba and has been rolled out throughout the province. Makupula met with traditional leaders to explain the project in a bid to get all stakeholders on board.

This programme is expected to improve matric results when the learners that were enrolled through this programme reach grade 12. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said MTBBE will be rolled out to other provinces where Xhosa is taught, using the Eastern Cape’s intellectual property.

Makupula is known to have given officials of the department hard time in that he scrutinised every report that he was given, and phoned people who were mentioned in those reports to confirm what they had said. Despite this, he had a good relationship with most of the department’s stakeholders.

“He was very meticulous about how we do things as the department,” said Kojana.

“He used to say, don’t put a blanket over issues when you are dealing with problems in education; isolate those areas that need attention, but acknowledge where there is good work.”

Kojana said the Eastern Cape was turning the corner because it has been tackling system inefficiencies.

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