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Literacy and language are the foundation of all learning. It is for this reason that the Zenex Foundation has a history of committed and evidence-based support for literacy. Over the 23 years of its existence as an independent donor, Zenex has supported literacy either by way of interventions in schools; materials development and/or research. The impact of this support has been evaluated through extensive Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and important lessons have been learnt about supporting literacy improvement at school level.

1. Introduction

There is a crisis in South Africa in that the majority of children are not reading; not reading enough, and not reading with meaning. Over the last 10 years, both local and international research has found that 29% of Grade 4 learners are illiterate, while 58% cannot read for meaning. More than 70% of the poorest half of our children cannot read with comprehension by Grade 4. As a result, children face learning difficulties in languages and all other school subjects throughout their schooling careers. One of the biggest reasons for reading challenges amongst South African children is the lack of reading material available in indigenous South African languages, both fiction and non-fiction. Books that do exist often do not reflect the realities of the majority of South African children, are not very interesting, or translated in ways that are linguistically age inappropriate.

Zenex Foundation has an annual budget of R 75 million to spend on grant making and general operations. Managing a task of this nature requires meticulous attention to detail, strong leadership and ethical conduct. The man behind this task at Zenex Foundation is Paresh Govind, Director of Finance & Corporate Services.

We caught up with him to find out more about his background, passions and future aspirations. Paresh’s story is one of overcoming obstacles, making sacrifices for loved ones and pursuing a life of fulfilment. While he had a rocky start in life, his perseverance and the support of his family has seen him through.

Getting literacy right is of critical importance in South Africa. The results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show that 78% of South African Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in this study (behind middle-income countries such as Iran, Chile, Morocco, and Oman) and some six learning years behind the highest performer, Russia.

Developing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds has been the nub of Zenex’s learner support programmes for the past ten years. These learners are primed to enter tertiary education and contribute to scarce skills.

We caught up with Jonathan Banza and Laila Bera who were both part of the Zenex Inkanyezi Project. After successfully completing matric, they secured scholarships at the African Leadership Academy (ALA). This is residential academic institution which offers two-year courses to exceptional students from across Africa. It is aimed at producing future African leaders. Laila and Jonathan are currently doing their second year at the academy. Jonathan and Laila have risen above their challenging backgrounds through resilience and hard work.

In 2015, the Zenex Foundation launched an internal internship programme to commemorate 20 years of impact-fully driving educational change in South Africa. The objective of the programme was to create opportunities for workplace experience for young people. This programme is directly aligned to the Foundation’s vision which is to have “skilled and empowered young people that can contribute towards the growth, development, and democratisation of the country.” The positions were created to support communications, finance and administration within the organisation. The internship runs for a period of 18-24 months and interns are given an opportunity to learn through a structured work plan developed jointly with their managers.

The Zenex Literacy Project (ZenLit) that commenced in 2014 reached its final year of implementation in 2017. Between 2014 and 2017, the Zenex Foundation designed and tested a model for improving the way literacy at Foundation Phase in both Home Language (HL) and English First Additional Language (EFAL) is taught and learnt. When the project was completed, the Zenex Board approved an extension of the coaching component of the project. The approval for the extension was informed by evaluation findings which showed that coaching plays a big role in ensuring that good teaching and learning practices are embedded.

The evaluation of the Zenex Literacy Project (ZenLit) was conducted by the Evaluation Research Agency (ERA), based at the Stellenbosch University. The Project was evaluated over a three-year period (from 2014 – 2017), using a framework which included repeated measures testing and control schools.

The Zenex Foundation hosted a seminar to present final evaluation findings; reflect on the lessons and impact, and encourage take up and utilisation of knowledge drawn from its Learner Support Programme (see the Inkanyezi Learner Placement Project and the ISASA Mathematics & English Learner Placement Project). The Programme was rolled out from 2005 – 2016 in independent and public schools in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape Provinces. The Programme placed Black (African, Coloured and Indian) learners with potential in Mathematics, Science and English in high schools with a proven track record of good performance in these subjects, to increase the pool of learners achieving quality passes in technical subjects. As part of the reflection process, Zenex asked Angelo Fick to serve as guest speaker and to share his thoughts on the link between academic achievement and excellence. Mr Fick produced an article on critical literacy, citizenship, and the value of education in contemporary South Africa. Angelo Fick recently joined ASRI as the Director of Research. Before joining ASRI, he spent nearly half a decade as a resident current affairs and news analyst at eNCA, a 24 hours news broadcaster in South Africa. For two decades he taught across a variety of disciplines in the Humanities and Applied Sciences in universities in South Africa and Europe.

“Knowledge has no value unless you use and share it.” These words from Mehwish Mahrukh encapsulate the Zenex Foundation’s theme in 2018.

At the end of 2017, the Zenex Foundation completed a stakeholder survey to gauge our stakeholders' perceptions of the Foundation. The feedback from the survey was intended to inform our future strategy and influence our communications. Among the key findings was a strong call for more frequent and regular information and knowledge about the Foundation’s work, activities and developments.

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