Leaving no child behind: The road to Zero School Dropout – Interview Series #2

Last month we introduced the Zero School Dropout Initiative and featured the first two of our trailblazers. Today we continue our series by hearing from two more of our partners, Ilze Olivier of Community Action Partnership and Jennie Rist of SAILI.

Ilze Olivier – Community Action Partnership

What motivates you to work in this space?

There is personal and professional motivation for me. Personally, I believe it is our responsibility as human beings to look after each other. And my young children are entering the education system and I saw the need to improve education for them but also for every child that is in any quantile school. If we can improve the quality of education for people, we can make them more employable and they can become providers for their families. This would transform communities.

Professionally this space challenges the idealist strategic part of me while also strengthening my execution skills and then, of course, the financial management.  Once you have managed the finances of an NGO – you can probably manage the finances of a country.

What keeps me working in this space is definitely gratitude.

What was your biggest learning from last year?

The rudest awakening from last year emerged after we did our analysis and tried to put down a baseline for our interventions. We realised that students dropping out of school was no longer an exception to the rule. It was the norm. The majority of students who enter high school do not complete their matric qualification. That was a surprise for me. I knew the problem was big but didn’t realise it was so significant.

That being said, we always focused on one-on-one interventions in our programmes very successfully. However, we can’t do one-on-one interventions if the need is so big. We started with over 1000 students that needed support from us to get them through school.

It felt like we were putting band-aids on these children but sending them back into broken homes and dysfunctional schools. That approach for that number of children is labour intensive and expensive. I realised the model was not sustainable nor scalable.

My biggest learning was the realisation that we need to shift from a one-on-one intervention (learner focused) to a more environmental focus.

What is CAP’s vision for the year ahead?

To create a collective consciousness in our community – to create an environment and culture of learning. Our vision is to create a communal approach to keeping children in school and prevent them from dropping out.

I always say this to my colleagues and I think they think I’m crazy or that it will never happen, but I’ll be happy when I can drive through our community and see a stranger stop a child and say, “It’s school time. Why aren’t you in school? Can I take you there? Let’s get someone to fetch you.” We need people to take responsibility to get our children educated.

How do you feel about the year ahead?

I’m very excited.  Maybe a little hesitant about how the community will perceive our strategic shift. Our small communities are used to the one-on-one interventions and all of a sudden we have to make people aware of the system and how its greater than the sum of all its parts. It needs to be a collective, collaborative approach. Otherwise, we’re all wasting our time and we will not get the needle moved.

What advice would you give to other NGOs working in this space?

My first piece of advice would be to evaluate your models – see if they’re sustainable and scalable.

Secondly, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. There are a lot of people driving quality education as an agenda point and who are very passionate about creating safe communities of opportunity for children in South Africa. Find them, talk to them, listen to them, partner with them, learn from them and create communities of practice. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel if we get to a place where we can communicate about things and collaborate on solutions and interventions going forward.

Jennie Rist SAILI

Why do you think this work is important?

Children drop out for various reasons and different organisations approach dropout with a different approach. While there are lots of people working in schools using psychological and pedagogical perspectives, systems change is also needed with regard to how schools are administered and how decisions are made. This refers to changing the system based on the data given to you rather than just for emotional reasons. We create a database out of the data and tools ourselves to make it more easily understandable for the school and circuit to see the overall picture. It doesn’t matter how hard you work at the psychosocial issues – if a child takes maths to matric but isn’t passing, that’s the issue. However, the psychosocial part is as important, as it talks about factors like motivation.

We need to make sure that the people running the school have the information to make the right decisions. That’s what we strive for and that will feed down to the individual level.

What was your biggest learning from last year?

In the past, SAILI used to work directly with the school. The programme going forward is to build infrastructure using what’s already there and working with the district staff rather than the school itself. We’re training the Circuit Managers to do the facilitation of the data analysis sessions. We will continue with creating databases and the supporting documentation/tools. While we were nervous about it in the beginning, because you don’t know whether or not the service and district staff are going to take this on board, it’s been the best thing ever. We’ve had so much buy-in from Circuit Managers and district staff. David Miller, District Manager in Metro-North, has been a great driver in this.

What is SAILI’s vision for the year ahead?

We try to respond to what the issues are, given our limited resources. We’ll continue with our different focus areas to train and facilitate with the circuit staff. Our scope is the whole of district north circuits and their secondary schools. (We started off with six circuits). This also has an impact on primary schools, especially around remedial actions resulting from the data analysis.

How do you feel about the year ahead?

I feel very confident. We’ve got the buy-in from the district. We have a good set of tools and processes that we’re already using and I’m confident these are working well. As we have the buy-in from the curriculum staff, we feel our tools are rigorous and have been vetted by experts.

Our biggest issue is how to obtain the data. That’s where communications and networking have been crucial. And persistence!

What advice would you give to NGOs trying to work with school data?

Understand how to get the data first. Who holds it and who has the mandate to provide it? Have a relationship with the person in control of it. There are so many different types of data and different types of organisations that gather it, so you may have to maintain relationships with quite a few people. Understand where and how data is held and the limitations of the systems that capture it. Take these limitations into account when analysing the data. Don’t have preconceived ideas about your data beforehand. Look at each piece of data in isolation.


In the next instalment, we will feature interviews with Tabisa Bata of Masibumbane and Zeni Thumbadoo of NACCW.

Register for our email notifications here so not to miss this interview.

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