By Renata Noble, Sales and CSI Manager, Sparrow Schools Educational Trust.
Despite the challenges of the past year, Sparrow Schools Educational Trust has worked with its partners to ensure a 100% completion rate for students at its Further Education and Training (FET) College, by adopting a blended learning approach, taking educational content online, finding alternative host companies, and even taking care of the nutritional needs. But, more can be done, and corporate South Africa needs to take up the challenge.
For over 30 years, the Trust, a non-profit, non-government organisation, has provided young, disadvantaged South Africans, with cognitive barriers to learning, the opportunity to access quality and accredited education. It has done this through a foundation school and a combined technical skills school that offers affordable, quality special needs education, as well as a FET College which provides fully-funded, accredited programmes – that includes on-the-job training – to disadvantaged youth and persons with disabilities.
Before lockdown, being at school afforded the children with professional care and educational development, interaction with others (which is vital for their development) and also a guaranteed meal. A number of the school’s students also come from orphanages and places of safety, where going to class was a welcome change. The national state of disaster, which has been in effect for over a year now, has had a tremendous impact on the education sector; the hard lockdown that was initially enforced in 2020 was tough on both students and parents at the Foundation School and Combined School.
As a result, the reopening of schools has come as a relief to teachers, as Sparrow was also able to resume providing children with the support programmes – including for literacy and numeracy, and physical development – required to ensure progress in their development. It has also provided peace of mind to parents, some of whom were essential services workers and had to carry on working during the hard lockdown – while having to make an alternative plan to take care of their special needs children at home.
For the Sparrow FET students, the lockdown affected both the theoretical and practical part of their studies. Due to the backgrounds that the majority of the children come from, access to devices – be it smartphones or laptops – as well as data for internet connectivity remains a challenge, making it more difficult to simply shift learning online as has been observed in many other schools.
Additionally, the uncertain economic conditions have placed strain on the companies that host our students for experiential training, with some even having to shut down. This not only jeopardises the students ability to complete their qualification, but also means a loss of income. This is particularly devastating in instances where a learner getting a stipend is the only breadwinner in the family.
Going beyond just education
To ensure that FET students didn’t fall behind with their studies, Sparrow started manually dropping off learner packs for students at various centres around Gauteng, including in Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as the East and West Rand. Parents would be notified where to meet staff, to both collect new packs, as well as to hand in the work completed by their children over the previous week.
Class content was also taken online using both WhatsApp and Google Classroom, to ensure that students would also have access to educational material and teachers as long as someone in their household – be it a family member at home, or a caretaker at an orphanage – had a cellphone. Here, South African corporates can play an active role in ensuring these young people are not left behind by assisting with laptops, data bundles, and perhaps even zero-rating more educational content and applications.
In cases where a FET student no longer had a host company, which was especially the case in the hospitality sector, Sparrow’s job coaches would find alternative organisations where they could complete their learnerships. This approach ensured that the students would be able to complete their studies within the strict allotted time as prescribed by the respective Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). With longer classes and extra days helping them catch up, all 432 students at the FET completed their training programmes.
Sparrow has also been providing food parcels to over 700 families to take care of their nutritional needs since the lockdown began, comprising children from both the Schools and FET. During the hard lockdown, there were students from other provinces who had to stay in Gauteng, and they were provided for too. These parcels contain maize meal and tins of food and are aimed at feeding a family of four, though provision is made for extra where it is known to be a larger family. As a result of the tough economic conditions, and subsequent job losses, the organisation continues to get requests for food assistance.
More needed to bridge the divide
If anything, the pandemic has exposed the digital divide in South Africa. While it might have been easier for many schools and other institutions of higher learning to simply take learning online, it is not as simple in an environment where students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and cannot afford devices and data.
Sparrow has been privileged to work with partners including Momentum Metropolitan Foundation, Deutsche Bank, Visions Consulting, OrangeNow and Nedbank Private Wealth over the years, providing schooling to over 400 children each year and training and placing close to 500 young unemployed youth into skills programmes, and mentorship programmes some of which are able to gain full time employment or further their studies. But, more can be done by corporate South Africa in order to invest in the youth from across a broad spectrum of society, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This can be done more directly, such as offering bursaries to children at the school, or offering learnership positions to students at the FET, assisting youth with devices and internet access, or even just making a difference in some way in their industry that makes access to education easier and more affordable.
While there are more immediate benefits for businesses, such as access to financial incentives and gaining regulatory compliance – in the case of making proper use of their Skills Development Levy – taking a genuine interest in the development of the youth can have a positive longer term impact in the country’s growth.
“The partnership between Sparrow FET and MMF helps us to enable the aspirations of young South Africans to enhance economic opportunities,’’ concludes Nkosinathi Mahlangu, Youth Employment Portfolio Head, Momentum Metropolitan Foundation.