By Garth Johnstone
With unemployment in SA remaining stubbornly high, efforts to increase qualifications of school leavers and opportunities for employment are more crucial than ever.
One way to improve local youth’s chances of advancing career prospects and prepare them for employment is the excellent work being carried out by Midlands Community College in Nottingham Road.
The college has nearly four decades’ experience in skills training and, more recently, helping youngsters who pass matric, but do not do sufficiently well in maths and science to pursue their studies of choice.
Second chance model
Referred to as a residential “second-chance model”, it allows matrics to return, focus on maths, science and technology, and achieve the results they need in the following year’s matric exams.
The college also, through its various courses, mentorship and talks by guest speakers, helps to open youngsters’ eyes to what career options are available to them.
The college was opened in 1981 by Pauline Greene on land donated by politician and activist Peter Brown. Midlands Community College Association, an NPO, owns the land and buildings, and arranges, with the help of funders, for the upkeep of the buildings, infrastructure and facilities.
In the early days, says deputy director of the college Rebecca Wakeford, it was established as a training centre for the development of adult basic education and training (Abet), agricultural and other skills. Fence making, construction, tractor repairs, shepherd training, domestic workers’ training, brick laying, welding and how to grow vegetables were some of the skills taught.
Some of the buildings were built by students doing construction training, she said.
In recent years, the focus has switched to maths, science, technology and early childhood development (ECD) training, according to changing demand and the requirements of the economy for more skills in these areas.
The college is accredited as a training organisation by the ETDP Seta. Because it is an intensive tuition centre rather than a school, the students write mid-year and trials exams at MCC, but must go back to the schools where they wrote matric the previous year for their finals.
Admission requirements are that students must have passed matric, and passed maths and science. They need a minimum of 25 points, and thus have the potential to get into tertiary education.
“Because the programmes have been running for so long, a lot of the applications are through word of mouth. We have a mobile science lab programme, started in 2002, that reaches 80 schools throughout the Midlands,” said Wakeford. We do pracs for grades 10 to12. That’s a big footprint for us.”
Many potential college students are recruited in this way.
“We reach about 8000 learners through that programme. We reach pupils in Pietermaritzburg, the Midlands, Estcourt, Loskop, Injisuthi, Winterton, Bergville, Ladysmith, some closer to Durban, a few from Eastern Cape and some from Gauteng.”
Mobile science labs are manned by six technicians, who go out every day in a sponsored vehicle. Some of the technicians have been through the college’s programme, some have left university because of funding issues, some go on to become teachers or are awarded bursaries to study further.
“Unfortunately, we find that today, the same challenges persist as in 2002,” said Wakeford. Schools do not have proper labs, they lack equipment and many of the teachers lack confidence in their subjects.
“Getting students who say, ‘I want to do better, I deserve a better chance, so I’m going to take a year and I’m going to improve’… that’s the sort of student we are looking for,” she said.
This often means a change of mindset, because “when you finish matric the last thing you feel like doing is going back and doing it again”.
“They also learn that a journey is not always a straight journey. You might study one thing and end up doing something else.”
Students make their applications to the college in January and must make a financial contribution of R6000 a year, out of a total cost of about R60 000, which includes board and lodging, facilities, the cost of educators, computers etc.
Funding comes from Investec, the Oppenheimer Foundation, Nedbank Private Wealth, bequests, trusts, the Lady Usher Midlands Development Trust, private individuals, the N3TC mobile science programme and others.
An event was held at the college for Mandela Day this year, where a request was made to business professionals or people with stories to tell to speak to the students in an informal, on-the-couch-style interview forum.
Grade 12 pupils from Asithuthuke and Shea O’Connor schools were invited to take part. The college “turned things around” and instructed the pupils to interview the guests.
Thirteen guest speakers gave of their time and each was allocated a pupil to interview them. The pupils were instructed to research their guest and his or her career, and design a series of relevant questions.
“I have to say it was a ‘wow’ day,” said Wakeford. “The students were professional and their questions amazing. We had a physiotherapist, a speech therapist, a pharmacist, a paramedic, a civil engineer, a programmer, a nursery manager and more.”
An address by Steuart Pennington, from SA Good News, closed the event, ensuring the day concluded on a high note.
Main picture, top: Computer training facilitator Mbu Mkhabela assisting Thobeka Nkosi. Picture: Garth Johnstone