/ 26 January 2024

Makhanda’s education renaissance

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The dedicated team of locally based educationists that includes academic and civic talent, and which has made a definite difference in the results of Makhanda learners.

Rhodes University and civic organisations partnered up – and radically boosted results

A transformational narrative is unfolding in the Eastern Cape, reshaping the Makhanda’s educational landscape and propelling it to the forefront of national progress.  The protagonist in this story is not an individual but a collective force of academic and civic talent, harnessed through unique collaborations between Rhodes University and partner organisations across the city. 

The recently released 2023 matric examination results showcase the city’s remarkable achievements, with an 80% pass rate and an impressive 300 Bachelor passes out of 824 candidates. But this was not always the case. In 2013, Grahamstown was ranked as the 10th worst-performing education district in the country.

So, what changed? Over the last decade, a dedicated team of locally based educationists has propelled Makhanda from educational anonymity to one of South Africa’s leading academic cities. 

According to Ashley Westaway, who manages one of the partner NGOs, GADRA Education, several initiatives exist that channel the city’s deep pool of academic expertise, primarily in the form of dedicated teachers and the 10 000-strong university population toward impactful interventions. These include literacy programmes for school-going children and leadership and training for educators. 

In 2018, Makhanda’s fee-exempt public schools produced over 100 Bachelor passes for the first time. By 2020, Makhanda had emerged as the best-performing city in the Eastern Cape Province in the matric exams — a status which it retains to this day. From 2021 onwards,  Makhanda’s public schools have produced over 300 Bachelor passes in the final NSC exams year on year. 

Westaway says the city’s pass rate has risen from around 60% to 80% over the past three years and the retention rate has surged from 45% to 69%. Crucially, he adds, there is a shift towards greater equality, with two-thirds of Bachelor passes coming from fee-exempt or no-fee schools. 

At the forefront of this transformative journey is the charismatic and inspirational leadership of Rhodes University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela and his team at Rhodes University: “When I was inaugurated, I sought to reposition Rhodes University so that it would not only be of benefit to its students but also play an integral role working with and for the community. At the time I said I wanted to see Grahamstown as the centre of academic excellence, starting from early childhood development right through to the university level.” 

Westaway says the variety of initiatives undertaken in Makhanda has significantly increased the number of local students accessing higher education opportunities at Rhodes University. In 2023, 160 disadvantaged local students accessed Rhodes University as full-time first-year students — a sixteen-fold increase from just 10 students in 2011. 

One standout initiative highlighted in the interview is the mentoring program called Nine Tenths. Inspired by the notion that “nine-tenths of education is encouragement” this programme has not only achieved local acclaim but has also achieved global recognition. “The programme involves over 100 Rhodes students mentoring 220 matriculants in local disadvantaged schools annually, contributing significantly to the city’s remarkable increase in pass rates,” Westaway explains. 

To maintain this momentum, however, those involved know that it is not enough to target learners in the late stages of schooling; early childhood development initiatives and literacy programmes in primary schools have been prioritised.“Last year, a significant national headline was that only 19% of South Africa’s grade four children could read for comprehension,” Westaway says. 

In contrast, however, a city-wide assessment of the comprehension competence of all grade four children in Makhanda showed that 40% could read for meaning. “This implies that literacy levels in Makhanda are more than double the national yardstick,” Westaway enthuses. “This contrast underscores our commitment to addressing the issue not just at the matriculation level, but starting from the foundation phase and systematically working through the system.”

Despite major successes, however, Mabizela says their mission to transform Makhanda’s educational landscape is far from over: “The vision is that by 2028 Makhanda emerges as the leading academic educational centre and city in South Africa and is recognised as such, thereby affording all local children and young people the benefit of good quality and relevant education at pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary levels.” 

He says that Makhanda’s schooling system today is undoubtedly better and more equitable than it was a decade ago. “We should take courage from the amazing progress that we have made over the years; we have come a long way together, but now we must ready ourselves for an even more challenging task that lies ahead: to become the best of the best in South Africa.”

As the tiny city continues to make strides in education, it stands as a shining example, challenging and inspiring others across the nation to stand up and stand together, investing in the future through the transformative power of education.