A gateway for promising Khayelitsha matriculants

06 September 2017 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Stephen Cruickshank.
The COSAT choir in full swing at the Schools Improvement Initiative’s fifth anniversary celebrations.
The COSAT choir in full swing at the Schools Improvement Initiative’s fifth anniversary celebrations.

UCT’s Schools Improvement Initiative (SII) has celebrated the fifth year of its partnership with Khayelitsha schools and the Western Cape Education Department. The community-based project provides a gateway into the university for promising Khayelitsha matriculants, and the project is yielding dividends: the township’s first cohort of graduates from UCT.

The SII was launched in May 2012, “a multi-stakeholder approach to dealing with the challenge of poor performance by learners from township and rural schools”, said Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price. Price was speaking at the anniversary celebration, hosted at the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) secondary school in Khayelitsha on 26 August and attended by a broad range of stakeholders, donors and supporters.

Through the SII programmes, UCT mobilises university-level resources to improve the quality of teaching and management in the three primary and two secondary schools with which it partners in Khayelitsha. Among the SII’s standout successes is its 100UP programme, which operates in all 20 secondary schools in the township and grooms matriculants for entry into UCT and other universities.

The SII is UCT’s direct response to the education crisis in South Africa. The underachievement of learners, particularly in the Western Cape’s township schools, has seen meagre numbers of black students qualifying to study at UCT. The SII was formed to harness the university’s broader resources and create meaningful partnerships with education-related groupings, inside and outside of UCT.

Its beginnings go back to Price’s inaugural address in 2008 when he identified several critical social issues he believed UCT should tackle. Among these was the crisis in public education.

Without the means to tackle the problem on a large scale, the SII chose to focus on neighbouring Khayelitsha. With over 500 000 inhabitants, it’s the largest township in the Cape Metropole and has over 50 primary and secondary schools.

“In 2013 only 29 students from the township’s 20 secondary schools were enrolled at UCT. Some schools in the township had never sent a matriculant to UCT,” Price noted. “Through this initiative, the university is committing itself to playing a more deliberate role in engaging practically, developmentally and critically with the challenges of schooling in this country.”

In addition, the SII aligned with one of UCT’s five key strategic goals: to forge a new, inclusive identity that reflects a more representative profile of students and staff, and the cultures, values, heritages and epistemologies of the diversity of UCT’s staff and students.

Daunting challenges

Addressing the guests at the anniversary event, director of the SII and the Schools Development Unit (SDU), and a former principal of COSAT, Dr Jonathan Clark said township schools faced “truly daunting” socioeconomic challenges.

“The negative impacts of the socioeconomic circumstances of the communities these schools serve press heavily on every classroom.

“One of the programme’s strengths is that it works to support each partner school’s self-identified development needs related to improving the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom.

“One way we achieve this is by engaging in teacher-professional and school-organisational development, which is undertaken by the SDU. Our modus operandi here is a combination of university-approved and South African Council of Educators-registered short courses, backed up by classroom-based support.”

The fifth anniversary celebration was also an invaluable opportunity to pass on insights and lessons learnt through the SII partnership between UCT, the provincial education department and other stakeholders.

The programme included five ‘conversations’, which saw UCT staff and students, school principals, teachers and their learners sharing their experiences about the partnership’s mutual benefits. The topics covered how UCT student-service learning had benefited schooling in Khayelitsha; what Khayelitsha schools need from a university-based schools improvement partnership; how the COSAT Wellness Centre’s groundbreaking work supports learners’ personal and developmental wellness; and how the flagship 100UP programme, the township-wide university preparation programme, had led to a significant increase in enrolments at UCT.

SII director Dr Jon Clark (right) with Benjamin Shereka, director of the Metropole East Education District at SII’s fifth anniversary celebration in Khayelitsha.

Ground up

The 100UP programme is undoubtedly one of the SII’s flagship initiatives. Working with learners in grades 10 to matric in all 20 secondary schools in Khayelitsha, it helps prepare learners for university entrance. The first intake of Grade 10s was enrolled in the programme in 2011, the year before SII’s formal launch.

The results have been startling. Of the four matric groups exiting the programme thus far, there have been 778 matriculants, including Grade 12s recruited into their additional support programme, the Gill Net, which operates in Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. All but one passed and of the 709 who obtained bachelor degree passes (96%), 643 (90%) have gone on to enrol at a tertiary institution. Almost half (293 candidates) were admitted to UCT.

“Eighty-three percent of the matriculants on the programme have gone on to university,” said Clark. “Significantly, year on year we’ve more than doubled enrolments at UCT and last year, for the first time, we made offers to matriculants at all 20 secondary schools in Khayelitsha.”


“…and last year, for the first time, we made offers to matriculants at all 20 secondary schools in Khayelitsha.”

But the programme takes a holistic look at the challenges that these young adults face. As academic support isn’t enough to prepare these learners, life skills were also added, said Clark. In addition to a grade 10 and 11 Saturday School at UCT, learners across the three senior grades participate in a series of workshops and activities, and they’re exposed to campus life through residential camps held on upper campus.

The SII team also assists in other key areas, such as the university application process (both to UCT and other institutions) and the National Benchmark Tests. If they’re accepted at UCT, they’re guaranteed a place in residence and assistance with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursary applications.

“There’s more to 100UP than just the 100 learners per grade enrolled on the programme,” said Clark. “We know that in some schools there are always more than five learners who’d be eligible for, say, UCT studies.”

As a result, towards the middle of Grade 12 they ‘trawl’ the schools for other promising candidates, recruiting them into an additional support programme, the Gill Net, which is run alongside 100UP. In 2015 the SII extended the Gill Net to the 15 schools in Mitchells Plain and in 2016 to nine schools in the Southern Cape as part of the UCT-in-Eden project.

Assoc Prof Roshan Galvaan, Head of the Division of Occupational Therapy, participating in one of five ‘conversations’, which saw UCT staff and students, school principals, teachers and learners sharing their experiences about the SII partnership’s mutual benefits.

Community growth

Although the SII’s work extends far beyond “quite conventional school improvement activities”, Clark says they are committed to ensuring that their activities in the schools complement those of the Western Cape Education Department.

As mentioned in the five conversations, the SII supports and facilitates a range of student professional practice, service learning and volunteerism at the SII partner schools, in line with UCT’s social responsiveness agenda. Each year students from different academic departments spend time in the partner schools for their compulsory professional practice. These include students from occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and audiology, as well as student social workers and student teachers.

“What has driven this work is a strong focus on interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues especially in the Faculty of Health Sciences,” said Clark.

Though they work “nose to the ground”, the partnership offered ample opportunity for research, he added.

“A three-year community engagement grant awarded to the SII by the National Research Foundation afforded us the opportunity to examine interdisciplinary collaboration and community engagement and this engaged scholarship has been written up in a book currently being peer-reviewed for publication.”

The SII also works with the UCT Knowledge Co-Op and with student volunteers through Ubunye’s TeachOut and Inkanyezi, as well as the Faculty of Law’s LAWCO and Students for Law and Social Justice.

There are material benefits for the schools too. The SII has helped Usasazo Secondary School to refurbish its physical sciences laboratory and has played a key role in establishing school libraries at four of the partner schools. In collaboration with the SII, The Bookery, Rotary and colleagues in UCT’s Library and Information Studies Centre provide ongoing support to library assistants in these schools.

While acknowledging the huge contributions of the team at the SDU and staff and students in faculties and departments from across the university, Clark also paid tribute to the vice-chancellor’s vision.

“This is your initiative and what the SII has achieved to date and will achieve in future is in no small way a testimony to your leadership in guiding UCT into becoming a more caring, more engaged university.”

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