Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
Supporting Classroom Teaching and Learning: The Case of Funda Wande in South Africa
This blog series reviews major policy reforms and interventions to showcase real-life examples of the ‘five actions to accelerate progress in learning’ identified by Pritchett, Newman & Silberstein (2022). In this fourth blog, I discuss how interventions to support teaching by the Funda Wande organisation led to significant gains in foundational literacy for primary school children in South Africa, aligning to the fourth action of ‘support teaching’ under the five actions.
Funda Wande is a South African non-profit organisation founded to address the country’s literacy and numeracy crisis by ensuring that all of South Africa’s children can read for meaning and calculate with confidence by the end of Grade 3.
Funda Wande is working towards this goal by designing quality interventions and associated materials that have been generating significant improvements in foundational literacy and numeracy. The organisation’s pilot intervention took place in 30 schools in the Eastern Cape and focused on the development and use of high-quality materials to support teaching. The evaluation of this pilot found significant gains in foundational literacy, with some cohorts seeing gains equivalent to participating in an additional term of schooling.
South Africa has almost universal school enrolment at the primary level and spends heavily on education by international standards (Ardington & Meiring, 2020). Despite this, South Africa was the lowest-performing country out of the 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) study in 2016 (Howie et al., 2017). Around 78 percent of students in Grade 4 did not have basic reading skills, showing a deep literacy crisis in South Africa. Further, the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) IV project in 2013 found that among fourteen school systems in Southern and Eastern Africa, South Africa was placing in the bottom half of school systems when ranked by the proportion of students in Grade 6 with ‘acceptable’ reading skills (Awich, 2021).
Funda Wande is a non-profit organisation that was founded in 2017 by Stellenbosch University economist Nic Spaull, who spent years closely studying education quality and the reasons behind low educational outcomes in South Africa. The organisation was founded on a single vision: that “all South African children can read for meaning by the end of Grade 3” (Ardington & Meiring, 2020). Funda Wande worked towards this objective by using a simple yet effective lever: supporting classroom teaching and learning.
Diagnosing the causes of low literacy
The development of the Funda Wande intervention began with identifying the causes of low learning levels in South Africa. Funda Wande identified four key areas contributing to poor educational outcomes (Samji & Kapoor, 2021):
- The institutions responsible for providing education were weak, lacked capacity, and had minimal accountability.
- Unions were pervasive and had high levels of influence, which they used to prioritise other goals, even though at times these were at the cost of learning outcomes.
- Teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills were inadequate.
- The resources available to students were insufficient, impacting their ability to learn.
Funda Wande recognised that it would have greatest impact within the latter two areas: teacher knowledge and skills, and student resources. The organisation then embarked upon a two-year journey in consultation with over 15 academics and stakeholders to design an intervention that addressed the latter two identified levers behind low learning levels (Ardington & Meiring, 2020).
Funda Wande designed its initial intervention from 2019 to 2022 as a pilot in 30 schools in the Eastern Cape province (one of the two provinces with the lowest literacy levels at the time), during which the organisation collected feedback and further improved its intervention before scaling it up (Samji & Kapoor, 2021).
Addressing low content knowledge and pedagogical skills among teachers
To address the low content knowledge and pedagogical skills of teachers, Funda Wande decided to develop an open-access online teacher training course, complete with a comprehensive list of resources to support teaching in the classroom. Secondly, trainings were also developed for instructional coaches to mentor teachers and for school administrators to promote the sustainability of the programme.
The development of resources for these courses followed an evidence-based and iterative approach. First, all materials were tested by a group of target teachers. Second, the team would visit schools to collect feedback and film demonstration videos for the online components of the hybrid course. This gave the team insightful feedback on the design of its materials, such as the need to film videos in settings that reflected the context of the teacher (for example, government classrooms with a large number of students present). Another piece of feedback was that teachers could not retain all the information in the videos, which led the team to design supplementary easy-to-read and visually appealing manuals for quick reference in the classroom (Samji & Kapoor, 2021).
With regard to the coaching element, Funda Wande engaged in consultations with the government and other stakeholders. This led to the recognition that the current structure of coaching (one literacy coach per five schools) was not sustainable for scaling up. Consequently, they employed additional coaches from the Youth Employment Service (YES), a youth capacity building programme with significant support from the current presidential government.
Creating quality resources to support student learning
Realising that students did not have access to quality resources that could support classroom teaching and learning, Funda Wande dug deeper to understand the causes of this. It was soon clear that while existing materials such as textbooks did exist, textbooks were numerous and long. This made it expensive to print enough textbooks and thus not financially viable to distribute textbooks to all students (Samji & Kapoor, 2021). Secondly, the textbooks that did exist were not on par with those of private schools and were not visually appealing to young children.
This prompted Funda Wande to redesign and repackage a selection of age-appropriate storybooks into a single concise book (reducing the cost of printing and distribution) and to improve the quality by transforming the content into visually appealing anthologies. In order to increase their reach even further, Funda Wande also provided free access to these materials online.
Following an evidence-based and iterative approach to developing their intervention, Funda Wande produced an open-access, high-quality online course for teachers, which it supplemented with a toolkit for use by teachers and students to improve students’ reading skills. This toolkit comprised structured lesson plans, handwriting booklets, baseline assessment booklets, group guided reading booklets, online resources, and videos and multimedia resources (Ardington & Meiring, 2020).
In addition to this, ongoing coaching was provided to teachers. Funda Wande also built a continuous process of research and feedback so that the work on improving South Africa’s education outcomes stayed current and dynamic (Samji & Kapoor, 2021).
What can we learn?
Funda Wande’s initial success in improving foundational literacy yields valuable and scalable insights. Funda Wande piloted its intervention and materials in one of the lowest-performing provinces of South Africa (Eastern Cape). While the pilot is currently ongoing, midline evaluations have shown promising and significant results.
- Improvements in reading outcomes for students in Grade 1 after one year in the Funda Wande programme were equivalent to students attending an additional third year of schooling (Ardington & Meiring, 2020).
- Improvements in reading outcomes for students in Grade 2 were equivalent to one additional term of schooling, with students enrolled in schools using Funda Wande resources exhibiting 15 percent higher scores on reading comprehension assessments than students in other schools.
- Most interestingly, the results from the Funda Wande pilot show that improvements in learning outcomes are being made across the distribution of learners, which is a significant achievement given the difficulty of improving learning for students with very low foundational proficiencies.
One key insight from the Funda Wande pilot is that supporting classroom teaching and learning can be a key lever for significant improvements in foundational learning outcomes. To shift the system using this lever, Funda Wande created a package of targeted supports: a high-quality course for teachers, a toolkit of instructional resources for teachers and students, and ongoing coaching for teachers. The improvements in foundational literacy as a result of these supports speak for themselves.
Note: Since this blog was written, more recent evaluations of the Funda Wande Eastern Cape pilot have been conducted and can be found under their evaluation reports section, with the latest being the second midline report from Funda Wande’s work in Limpopo.
The Funda Wande story illustrates the need to support teaching in an evidence-based and contextually relevant manner, with the following policy implications:
- Start with a solid understanding and definition of the problem you are looking to address. In Funda Wande’s case, this was done by conducting significant research into the causes of poor educational outcomes and the identification of which causes could effectively be addressed. This research indicated the need to support teaching in a way that wasn’t done previously.
- Focus on one lever and align your approach around it. For Funda Wande, this lever was supporting classroom teaching and learning, and Funda Wande built its intervention around this lever. Trying to focus on too many levers will diffuse efforts and make it difficult to see results.
- Adapt and iterate upon your programme and associated materials in response to feedback. Funda Wande frequently revised the material it created based upon the feedback being collected to create a programme and material that was relevant and appropriate for its target audiences.
Ardington, C., & Meiring, T. 2020. “Impact Evaluation of Funda Wande Coaching Intervention Midline Findings.” Available at: https://fundawande.org/img/cms/news/Impact%20Evaluation%20of%20Funda%20Wande%20Coaching%20Intervention%20Midline%20Findings.pdf.
Awich, M. 2021. “SACMEQ VI International Report,” SACMEQ VI.
Howie, S.J., Combrinck, C., Roux, K., Tshele, M., Mokoena, G.M., & McLeod Palane, N. 2017. “PIRLS Literacy 2016: South African Highlights Report,” Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.
Samji, S., & Kapoor, M. 2021. “Funda Wande through the lens of PDIA: Showcasing a flexible and iterative learning approach to improving educational outcomes.” RISE Insight 2022/036. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2022/036
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