A Strong Foundation

With a mantra of “Let’s fix Grahamstown’s schools”, the new Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, is determined to tackle the crisis in education by starting in his own backyard. To this end, a multi-pronged approach has been taken  that encompasses both long- and short-term initiatives, and involves working with a variety of partners.

In the long run, the answer lies in building strong foundations for learning at an early stage. And that is why the areas of Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Foundation Phase (FP) education have emerged as key areas of intervention.

A pilot project offering a full-time, bilingual Bachelor of Education (BEd) qualification in Foundation Phase (FP) teaching was launched in the Rhodes Education Faculty at the beginning of 2015. This was also in response to a request from the Department of Higher Education and Training to address a national imperative, ie increasing  the number of mother-tongue teachers at the FP level. The response has been very positive – 45 students enrolled instead of the required 26 – and there is a good mix. “We are encouraged that there is diversity, not only in language, but also in gender,” says Prof Di Wilmot, Dean of Education.

There are plans for a part-time Grade R Diploma in 2016/17 for ECD practitioners, in order to boost the qualifications and numbers of teachers for this critical phase of schooling.  A part-time BEd Foundation Phase course, run by the Centre for Social Development (CSD), is already in place and having a significant impact on teacher professionalism and practice as far afield as the Northern Cape.

A recent collaboration with the Rhodes Geography Department has resulted in the generation of data sets for all ECD facilities, primary schools and high schools in the different wards of Grahamstown, accompanied by relevant socio-economic information.  These will provide vital research and planning tools, not only to Rhodes but also to other organisations and institutions in the area. The data revealed that large numbers of children under four years of age are not receiving any kind of ECD input, so efforts are being made toput “edutainers”, which are containers equipped as early learning classrooms, in place in areas where ECD facilities are most lacking.

“We are really engaging with the community and trying to be responsive to our context,” says Wilmot. Evidence of this comes from the work she herself is doing with local Geography teachers. In 2013/14, Wilmot researched the state of Geography teaching in public schools in Grahamstown, and she has subsequently established a community of practice that keeps in touch and meets regularly to improve their theoretical understanding and teaching practice. In addition, her Faculty has worked with the Rhodes Community Engagement Office to developa generic short course for student volunteers who act as tutors for the GADRA Matric School.

At the systemic level, Dr Mabizela has encouraged the Dean to be active in pursuing a relationship with the National Education Collaborative Trust, and to link this to the provincial education authorities so that agreement can be reached on what role the universities can play in addressing the education crisis in the province.

Wilmot stresses that the Faculty retains a strong research agenda alongside the more practical initiatives: “This is after all a university and our research trajectory needs to remain good. A Numeracy Chair is already in place in the Faculty, and there are plans to also establish a Literacy Chair, in order to address two of the most vital areas of early education.”

With initiatives in place at so many levels, it seems the University is well placed to give effect to Dr Mabizela’s vision.