Evaluation of the learner support programme in independent schools
Duration of Project: 2007 to date
Where is the Project based: Cape Town, Gauteng, KZN
Evaluation conducted by: Quality Projects in Education (QPiE)
The Zenex Foundation supports a project that provides opportunities for disadvantaged learners with potential in Mathematics and Science to attend a range of independent schools. These learners receive added benefits of individually supported learning experiences including academic, life and social skills that offer them a real opportunity to achieve to their fullest ability. The Foundation has supported this project for 10 years and commissioned an evaluation to establish whether the intervention has resulted in improved learner performance.
In 2007, 128 Grade 10 learners from disadvantaged schools received bursaries to attend one of 15 Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) affiliated schools: three in Cape Town, four in Gauteng and eight in KwaZulu-Natal.
The learners were distributed as follows:
- 90 learners attended Type 1 schools. These so-called 'hub' schools were typically "low fee" and "mono-racial". They each had more than 10 project learners.
- 15 learners attended Type 2 schools. Two schools were "mid fee", "multiracial" schools and had between 6 and 10 project learners in the grade.
- 23 learners attended Type 3 schools. Ten schools had less than 6 project learners in the grade. Type 3 includes three 'high fee' schools which are single sex where no more than two project learners were placed.
The evaluation report assessed the academic progress of the learners and their experiences in adapting to a new school environment.
All project learners were tested in Mathematics and English at the end of 2007. Overall, the performance of the learners in the Mathematics test was poor (mean = 26%) relative to their December school marks (mean = 50%). The learners' poor scores in basic Mathematics was a result, the researchers suggested, of poor foundational work done in their primary schooling.
Likewise, but to a lesser extent, the English marks were lower (mean = 45%) than the December English marks (mean = 54%). The learners scored better in English in multi-racial schools where the language was more commonly spoken outside the classroom as compared to predominantly English medium schools. However, there were some high achieving learners in each school type.
In order to get some indication of learners' reasoning abilities, a test was conducted with all
of the project learners and a sample of their classmates. The project learners scored lower than their peers, particularly on the reasoning component of the test but less so on the argument component. There was a significant difference in scores between schools and between the different types of schools. Learners selected for the hub (low fee) schools scored lower than those going to the other schools.
The project learners reported higher levels of involvement in both Mathematics and English lessons than their classmates. This reflects a positive change from their previous learning environments where their active participation had not been encouraged.
Overall the results showed that the schools had very different environments for learning, which placed an emphasis on supporting learners beyond the classroom by way of mentorship and additional academic support.
Insights from Project Learners and School Staff
Through questionnaires, focus groups and individual interviews with the learners, the researchers verified that the vast majority were pleased to be part of the project, typically because of the opportunities it afforded them.
When asked what in the new school was likely to make a difference and help them to get a good pass in Grade 12, learners most frequently mentioned the culture of learning and the encouragement of the teachers.
Most learners reported equal treatment at school, with just a quarter saying they were treated differently by teachers or their peers.
Many of these learners are under extreme pressure due to the increased work, the expectations of parents and the risk of failing and leaving the programme. The biggest adjustment for them to make was to the learning culture of the new schools. They also struggled as they suddenly found themselves at the bottom instead of the top of the class, given that they were top performers in their previous schools. Many learners felt that the biggest change for them in 2007 was, however, in the area of personal growth and confidence.
Support from mentor teachers varied from school to school. Most of the perceived mentor support involved simple inquiries about a learner's needs.
School staff were overwhelmingly positive about the project. They felt the learners would pass the senior certificate and had benefited greatly from moving schools. The subject teachers generally found the project learners hardworking and keen to overcome gaps in their knowledge. The only reservation expressed was the continued funding for the learners who qualified for university.
The achievements of learners cannot be a measure of the competencies of the schools involved in the project. The differences between learners' abilities, the class environments and the resources available to them made comparisons between schools difficult.
Selection and placement
The selection process and placement of learners in particular schools was a contentious aspect of the programme. Learners became aware that others in the project are in more advantaged situations. While all participants were informed of the conditions of acceptance, transparent and clear reasons for the placements should be available to the learners to explain their placement in different school environments.
Removing learners from their normal schooling community and then returning them if they fail was academically disruptive. Subjecting learners who are two years into the programme to the threat of being excluded (in addition to the stress of family and community expectations) should be examined. It seems that hardworking learners were becoming panic stricken and upset which was counter-productive.
Changing orientation from science and mathematics
Nine learners dropped one of the Science subjects in favour of more manageable options in Grade 11. Information on career choice needed to be intensified if higher education in the Sciences remained a project goal.
The programme showed some positive results even though learner performance had not significantly improved at the time of the evaluation. The learners, with few exceptions, settled into their new schools. Most found the work ethic very different to their previous schools, yet all participants were positive about the success of the project.