Transforming rural communities through education

1 Feb 2017 - 08:45

Great things are happening in the rural village of Zithulele in the Eastern Cape, thanks in no small part to the efforts of UCT chemical engineering graduate of ’98, Craig Paxton.

Craig is the co-founder and executive director of Axium Education Services which aims to transform rural communities in the developing world through education. They use a three-tiered strategy working with students, teachers and school leaders to raise student achievement and create a pathway for talented students to pursue tertiary study.

“Millions of rural people move through life deprived of the opportunities that quality education provides... and the global community is poorer because of this,” says Craig.

According to him, the only way to awaken the potential of this sleeping giant is to transform the way education is done – to reach more students, more effectively with the limited resources available.

Craig’s own journey into the field of rural education began when, after four years of working in the industry as a chemical engineer, he returned to UCT to complete a postgraduate certificate in education. A six-week stint in a remote school in KwaZulu-Natal in 2002 convinced him of the dire need for educational innovation in rural South Africa.

He has taught in Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom, acquiring a wealth of science and mathematics teaching experience and first-hand knowledge of best practices from different education systems.  By adapting these to the rural classroom he hopes to begin transforming education in the areas where it is most needed.

Rural schools face tremendous challenges – crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms, teachers who commute up to three hours a day and thus are often absent or late. Little genuine learning takes place. Only one in two hundred rural children can access higher education.

For Craig, it is essential that Axium Education does its work from within such a community in partnership with local residents. “We are based in Zithulele, as we believe in the people who live here. Any solutions to these issues will be found here and need to be owned by the communities in which they are developed,” he explains. “We are interested in strategies and programmes that work rather than those that make us feel good and provide symptomatic relief.”

Axium works alongside other NGOs in the area who address the external factors that affect learning, like HIV and nutrition. Axium’s focus, however, is on five-pipeline support programmes, namely:

  • an early literacy initiative;
  • a daily support programme for Maths and English targeting learners from grades six to nine;
  • a Saturday academic programme for supporting and increasing the top achievers in grades ten to twelve;
  • support for local teacher networks, aimed at increasing professional growth and the sharing of knowledge and resources; and last but not least,
  • legal advocacy – advocating for material changes working with partners like Equal Education and Legal Resource Centre.

There is now a fairly well-trodden pathway from the rural schools we work with to tertiary institutions across the country. This was certainly not the case five years ago, and we must credit some exceptional school leaders and science teachers at these schools for helping to shift the expectations of what is possible for the students in their care. There is increasingly a high-performance culture developing among students, who know that great results and tertiary study are possible if they are willing to tick certain boxes.

                                                                    Nobalisa in action 

At the other end of the pipeline, we're excited by the fact that young children at eight primary schools in our area now have at least two hours of individual attention each week through our Community Reader, or Nobalisa, programme. The educational consensus is that there is only so much you can do with students late in their school career, so building strong foundations in literacy and numeracy is crucial if we are going to change the game from "rescuing the few" to "creating opportunities for all".

“Since our first graduating class of students in 2012, where only four students achieved a bachelor's pass with maths and science, we now have dozens of rural students placed at universities across the country. Two of our best from recent years are currently studying Actuarial Science at UCT,” said Craig.

Axium Education relies to a large degree on the generosity of volunteers who give of their time, energy and expertise to enable the students to succeed. They generally welcome all volunteers, although the longer they're able to commit for, the more meaningful the time will be - for both them and the young people they work with. In particular, isiXhosa speaking volunteers are like gold.

Craig adds, “We are inspired when we see the results of these five-pipeline supports, combining to encourage students and teachers to achieve great things in a rural environment and rising above the many challenges to do so.”

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