Rural primary school teachers outperform urban counterparts

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The Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development (NMI), Madiba’s legacy organisation housed in his home province and located at his alma mater, the University of Fort Hare, recently honoured teachers working with the Institute across several years to improve literacy and mathematics in the foundation phase.

The flagship work of the Nelson Mandela Institute has become known as the “Magic Classroom Collective.”

The Magic Classroom Collective (MCC) brings together rural teachers, teacher educators and researchers to develop materials and tools to improve reading, writing and mathematics in African language dominant primary schools.

The schools in the MCC began among the lowest performers in the Eastern Cape Province. 97% of children in Grade 3 scored less than 30% on a standard Grade 3 literacy assessment. Currently 80% of children score well above 30%.

In mathematics, this cohort of deeply rural schools is currently outperforming a much better resourced comparison cohort in Gauteng.  These improvements are the highest rates of documented improvements in primary literacy and mathematics.

Prof. Nicky Roberts, overseeing the evaluation results, explains, “There have been other interventions showing promising results.  However, these results singularly stand out. This is the first time we have seen this level of improvement in literacy and mathematics in primary schooling.”

At the end of June, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Basic Education, Dr. Reginah Mhaule, presented a keynote address celebrating the ground-breaking innovations of the Nelson Mandela Institute and the hard work of the Magic Classroom Collective teachers. “I express my heartiest gratitude to the collective efforts of the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development and its Trustees towards the development of these young talents, grooming them to achieve in life, and above all, raising their skills in Mathematics and Literacy with a caring attitude.”

She emphasised the importance of collaboration. “The model the NMI is building is going to help South Africa’s education system in the promotion of bilingualism in our schools.”

She acknowledged the importance of the bilingual Bachelor of Education at the University of Fort Hare, “Teachers must be trained both in isiXhosa and English from University.”

She emphasized, “When you look at the results of the MCC programme, they are leading with excellent results.”

She spoke to the importance of deepening the collaboration, with the shared vison of improving literacy and mathematics in primary schooling at system scale.

When asked how these results were achieved, the Executive Director explained that these results reflect hard work over a long period of time.

“The Magic Classroom Collective is a learning laboratory. We aim to develop materials and tools to assist primary school teachers to improve literacy and mathematics in African language dominant classrooms.  We have found that when we provide teachers with evidence-based instructional tools, in a humanising environment, learners begin to enjoy learning.  Over time teachers enjoy teaching again.”

Dr. Brian Ramadiro explained that the Magic Classroom Collective develops evidence-based tools and strategies. He explains that the NMI focus on developing strategies and tools with teachers, and then carefully test them with teachers in their classrooms.

“We continually refine tools to make them work better. When an engineer develops a phone, they stress-test the phones under difficult conditions. In our case, we stress test strategies and materials in rural classrooms. When we develop tools that truly work in this instructional context, we believe they are well-developed to work at wide system scale.  In the next phase of the work, we look forward to working together with the Department to find ways of sharing materials and strategies at wider system scale.”


Explaining the significance of the work across Africa, Dr. Ramadiro points to African children’s home languages. “The most important resource any child brings with her when entering schooling are the language or languages that make sense to her. The most important goal of primary schooling is to expand children’s language use and meaning making, while assisting them to read with meaning.”

He says that while this premise is accepted across the world, it is often not fully embraced in Africa.

He explains, “In many African countries, colonial languages remain the language of the economy. One goal of public schooling, across time is to develop children’s proficiency in the language of the economy. In South Africa, this primarily means developing proficiency in English. What people do not fully understand is that it is well established that children’ competency in a second language is achieved best through schooling system that deepens a child’s home language while teaching a second language across time.”

He says that he looks forward to working with others in the African context, developing models and strategies for quality primary schooling in African language dominant primary schools.

Ms. Phindiwe Mazeka, a Grade 2 teacher in a primary school in rural Mbizana speaks about her experience of the MCC.

She says, “Today I am a very confident teacher.  I am more loving.  I have a polite and loving manner, bearing in mind that I maintain class discipline.  I am that confident teacher with confident learners. My learners are reading – most are reading fluently with understanding.  We use writing strategies and engage in shared writing.  We use so many comprehension strategies.”  When asked about the “magic” in her classroom, she says “I have had so many touching and magical moments.


I have noticed so much bonding.  When I was away from the classroom one day, the children say that when they sang a song they cried because they were remembering me through that song. The children, they just love me now.”

Foundation phase teachers who have been honoured at this ground-breaking event are from the OR Tambo inland and Alfred Nzo east district municipalities of the Eastern Cape where the NMI works with 13 schools and has been doing so for the last two decades.

The NMI has also quite recently started working with 15 schools in the Buffalo City Municipality, it must be noted that work in this district has not been going on as long as the afore mentioned two districts whose teachers have been honoured.