Cutting edge: Pupils who have attended the Columba programme are inspired to be proactive, including starting a barber club. Picture: SUPPLIED
Cutting edge: Pupils who have attended the Columba programme are inspired to be proactive, including starting a barber club. Picture: SUPPLIED

Young Paul Nkosi’s future changed when his school identified him as one of their learners who needed a kick in the right direction.

Nkosi was a pupil at Tembisa Secondary School in Midrand, which experienced problems with discipline, tardiness and poor sanitary conditions. He had repeated grade 9 because he fooled around more he than studied.

Then he was chosen to attend an intensive six-day residential academy run by Columba Leadership, an organisation that gives school staff and pupils the leadership skills and vision to tackle their problems. Nkosi and 11 classmates worked with the principal and two teachers to become “change agents to improve their school.

“The Columba programme motivated me school-wise and socially to take responsibility for my life,” Nkosi says.

“It’s a very magical thing that it does. You get so much fulfilment there as a young person. When you come back from the academy you want to change things in your space.”

Nkosi began doing well in class and his newfound leadership ability saw him play an influential role at his school. He is now with Absa’s Ready to Work programme, visiting schools to teach entrepreneurship, money management, people skills and what to expect in the working world.

In our experience, young people want to bring positive change if you open up space for them to be involved. They are frustrated by all the negative things in their communities and this equips them to start doing something rather than just be passive.
Tracey Hackland
Columba CEO

SA’s education system is riddled with difficulties, but Columba has worked with 176 schools so far and seen inspiring results. Its success lies in creating an opportunity for learners to become an active force for good, rather than dejected or disengaged young people.

“It’s about unlocking the potential of people to create changes from the inside out,” says Columba CEO Tracey Hackland.

“In our experience, young people want to bring positive change if you open up space for them to be involved. They are frustrated by all the negative things in their communities and this equips them to start doing something rather than just be passive.”

The idea was brought to SA by Rob Taylor, a former director of Dimension Data, who first saw the programme working with underprivileged youths in Scotland. Currently, 24 organisations, including FNB, sponsor the programme, paying R300,000 a year for each school.

The sponsors can send four of their executives to each annual academy, and they also return invigorated and inspired.

“So you give but you gain more, because the impact of sending four leaders comes for free,” says Taylor.

Schools must apply to join the programme because it takes dedication and hard work, says Hackland.

“We could work in a good school and make it better, but typically we work where there are issues and this intervention could make a difference,” she says.

“The keys are that the principal sees the opportunity and is prepared to lead it, and the educators have a deep passion for people even if they have lost their way because this re-ignites their passion.”

The week-long course where adults and youngsters work together forms the foundation by helping teachers see their learners differently. Instead of viewing them as consumers of content, or as young people who are not achieving their potential, they see them as partners who can drive the change.

Columba also runs one-day sessions for learners who were not chosen for the academy, so they don’t feel left out and join the movement.

The pupils then identify five problems at their school, and recruit other students onto committees to resolve them. An infrastructure committee might physically replace broken windows, repair desks, clean up vandalism and clean the toilets, for example.

The programme also inspires the teachers again, with many taking further qualifications or getting promoted because of their rekindled spirit.

School principal Fari Rufetu of Etwatwa Secondary School in Benoni says Columba’s six-day academy triggers an “enlightening metamorphosis” that every teacher or corporate leader should experience.

“By going through the academy’s exercises you discover yourself,” he says. “My management style has totally changed. It’s affected me as a headmaster and would affect the manager of any company.”

Rufetu says it showed him that successful education is about much more than good exam grades. “It opened my brain to see that it’s not about the A students. It’s about developing them to become useful in the community.”

Etwatwa’s three-year involvement in the programme has led to dramatic changes. A third of their teachers used to consistently arrive late, but no one has been late this year.

The school grounds were constantly littered and the learners found sponsors so they could buy a dustbin for every classroom. Some have started visiting disabled and elderly people in their local community. Parents have noticed the remarkable difference, and their attendance at school meetings rose from a paltry 30% to 80%.

While results are hard to measure in concrete terms, Columba says the youngsters who attend its academy tend to outperform the national average in terms of academic grades, and 75% go on to university or find employment. Some have been offered jobs by the company that sponsored their schools.