Adopt-a-School Foundation executive director Stephen Lebere on uplifting disadvantaged learners and the fundamental importance of mathematics


​Q: Adopt-a-School is the brainchild of businessman and politician Cyril Ramaphosa. Is it true it was inspired by the donation of a fax machine?
A: That’s correct. In 2001, Cyril was approached by his former school, Tshilidzi Primary School in Soweto, through an appeal to its alumni for support. One of the items on its wish list was a fax machine. When he returned to the school to donate it and saw that the institution had many other needs, he mobilised support from the private sector and ‘adopted’ the school. A year later, together with fellow businessman James Motlatsi and others, he officially established the Adopt-a-School Foundation.

Q: SA’s state education system is extremely poor. What are the reasons for this?
A: Great progress has been made over the last 20 years but the education system is still marked by stark inequalities. SA has good policies and development plans in place but one of our biggest challenges is implementing and managing them. The legacy of apartheid has left a backlog in the education system that requires all sectors of society to support government in realising this vision.

Q: Many experts lament SA’s low standards of maths and science in particular. Why are these subjects so important?
A: Improving the overall quality of mathematics and science results, and the uptake of these subjects by learners, is at the core of addressing the critical skills shortage in SA’s professional industries such as medicine, engineering, accounting and law.

Q: What is the foundation’s philosophy?
A: Adopt-a-School Foundation subscribes to Whole School Development – a practical, holistic and grass roots-focused model aimed at incrementally addressing the challenges in disadvantaged schools over a set period of time.

It focuses on school leadership, management and governance; educator development and learner support systems; basic infrastructure such as ablution facilities, classrooms and libraries, as well as computer and science laboratories; extra- and co-curricular activities; and promoting the social welfare of learners.

Q: Why is the Whole School development Approach so important?
A: When Adopt-a-School was established in 2002, the focus was on building school facilities. We soon realised that we had to go deeper to make a more meaningful impact on the education environment. Where we built science laboratories, for example, we needed to ensure they were equipped with the necessary resources.

We now prioritise programmes to ensure that a school has a healthy, functioning and successful leadership team. Before investing in facilities and resources, it is imperative that schools have the systems in place to manage and take ownership of these interventions.

Q: Does the Whole School approach extend to the surrounding community?
A: Yes. Another critical lesson was the need to address social welfare issues and alleviate poverty in the local community. We support the establishment of school vegetable gardens, which supplement school feeding schemes and provide learners with food to take home to their families. We also work with the departments of Home Affairs and Social Development to assist learners and their families with social grants and other government services.

Adopt-a-School prioritises the health and wellness of learners in its institutions, and runs sanitation programmes that address critical health issues. It also facilitates a visual support programme that brings mobile eyesight-testing clinics to schools in rural and township areas, and provides spectacles to learners who need them.

‘Great progress has been made over the last 20 years but the education system is still marked by stark inequalities’

Q: What role do corporates fulfil in Adopt-a-School?
A: Corporates adopt schools and invest in their development over a set period. As they often have a variety of resources other than finances to offer, we assist them in sharing those effectively.

It is important to follow a set implementation procedure. Even if corporates are not in a position to adopt a school for the entire process, we will match them with an institution with specific interventions in place that will enable them to still have a meaningful impact.

Q: Do you only accept donations, Or can companies and individuals volunteer at the schools?
A: We have an annual volunteer programme called Back to School for a Day, where we encourage corporate SA to visit a disadvantaged school for a day and make a difference to the education environment. This can be done through a number of ways, including career guidance and motivational sessions with learners, and physical activities such as planting vegetable gardens, minor renovations and the provision of critical resources like stationery, non-perishable foods and administrative resources.

Volunteerism is very important to us for various reasons. Done correctly, these opportunities are highly beneficial to the learners and the educators, and also provide a platform for corporates and individuals to witness the challenges our schools face first hand.

Q: How do you select the schools? Or can they approach you?
A: Schools can approach us for adoption. They are required to complete a detailed application form and will be added to our database until an adopter is identified. Our corporate partners often prefer to adopt schools within their areas of operation.

Prior to the adoption of a school, the foundation will conduct a needs-assessment to analyse its infrastructural conditions and future requirements in order of priority. Through in-depth interviews with members of the learner representative council, school management team and governing body, as well as educators and parents, the foundation will assess the critical skills shortages, developmental needs and support required.

Q: Do you concentrate on specific parts of the country?
A: We are fundamentally donor-driven and our footprint is determined by the corporate investment in that area. While we have a presence in each of SA’s nine provinces, our largest footprint is in the Free State where we work in 414 schools.

This is partly due to the adoption of 410 schools by the Kagiso Shanduka Trust in the Free State. We have 50 schools in KwaZulu-Natal and 48 in Gauteng. We have also adopted three schools in Lesotho and one in Mozambique. In total we work with nearly 600 schools.

Q: Is there any difference between your work with primary and high schools?
A: While challenges differ in primary schools and high schools, the Whole School Development approach is fundamentally the same. In high schools, curriculum development work is often remedial and we spend a lot of time providing learners with supplementary support to ensure they perform well in their final exams.

It is extremely important that learners have a solid foundation in mathematics and literacy before reaching high school. For this reason, it is a strong focus for us in primary schools.

‘When teachers are enthusiastic and committed to the adoption process, positive change is bound to happen’

Q: How do educators fit into the Adopt-a-School programme?
A: When teachers are enthusiastic and committed to the adoption process, positive change is bound to happen. Educators are asked to attend professional-development programmes, outside of school hours, where we help them set goals and targets.

Accountable for their own performance, the educators form committees to address specific challenges and in many instances set up Saturday schools and extra early-morning classes.

For example, at a school in the Northern Cape town of Pampierstad – an area rife with social challenges – educators formed a social welfare committee called Hands of Compassion through which they make personal monetary contributions each month to assist disadvantaged learners with food and school stationery.

Q: And the parents?
A: We try to involve them as much as possible. We have trained parents to work in the libraries the foundation has built, and often parents are offered temporary employment through our building projects. Adopt-a-School has also run a few parental workshops where we provide them with tools to help support their children’s education.

Q: How closely does the foundation work with the government?
A: Our relationship with the Department of Basic Education, from district to national, is critical to the success of our programmes. It is crucial that we are aligned with the government’s plans and that our work complies with its policies and standards. For this reason, we are in constant consultation with them.

We also partner with the departments of Health, Social Development and Home Affairs.

The Kagiso Shanduka Trust and the Free State Department of Education have entered into a five-year partnership aimed at improving the quality of schooling in the Fezile Dabi and Motheo districts. Both parties have committed to each invest R200 million in our programme.

Q: Are there plans to expand the model into the rest of Africa?
A: As mentioned, we currently work in schools in Lesotho and Mozambique. However, our expertise is here in SA and there is still so much work to be done locally, especially in our rural communities.

Q: What are Adopt-a-School’s plans regarding e-learning?
A: Adopt-a-School has engaged with a number of different partners on effective e-learning solutions. We work with some of the most disadvantaged schools in the country and there is still a lot of development that needs to take place before e-learning can be introduced to these institutions. That said, it is very exciting to see the different solutions being developed specifically for poor schools in remote locations.

Q: What other organisations do you partner with?
A: We work with over 50 corporate partners. The Industrial Development Corporation has adopted 20 high schools, while Lafarge Education Trust has adopted 11 schools in the Bodibe village in the North West, and 37 schools in the Mzimela district which is in KwaZulu-Natal. The Shanduka Group is our largest anchor funder and supports our operational overheads. It also provides the foundation with important strategic guidance and support. DRA Mineral Projects has provided skills and expertise to ensure high levels of sustainability and safety in school infrastructure projects. Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr assists the foundation in terms of legal matters. We also partner with NGOs.

Q: What remains your biggest challenge?
A: Operational funding to support our growth. While Adopt-a-School Foundation has great corporate support, it is primarily project-based. As we take on more and more development projects, our operational costs increase significantly. We are appealing for non-designated funding, which will support our growth and enable us to take Whole School Development to the most remote corners of our country.

By John Rossouw
Image: Hanlie Huisamen