Picture: Rally to Read
Picture: Rally to Read

Nearly 28,000 SA primary school children are beginning to develop a new skill, one they thought had passed them by — the ability to read and write.

With the support of FM readers, Rally to Read, the national literacy initiative targeting remote rural schools, has just completed its 2019 programme. This year it provided educational resources and teacher training to 63 schools in five provinces, reaching 306 teachers and 27,734 children.

Since its launch in 1998, Rally to Read has engaged 925 schools, 14,700 teachers and 615,000 pupils.

Planning for the 2020 programme is already well advanced. The Mpumalanga rally will take place on February 28-March 1; the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) rally to Drakensberg schools on August 29-30; the Free State one on September 4-5; the one to the Western Cape on October 3-4; and a one-day event near Pietermaritzburg in KZN, will take place on October 10. A date for the Eastern Cape rally has still to be confirmed.

The FM is an organising partner in Rally to Read. Corporate and private sponsors, many of them FM readers, raised more than R5.5m this year to provide educational resources and teacher training to rural schools that have been damaged by the budget limitations of provincial education departments.

Most of the provincial money is spent in urban and township areas, leaving many far-flung schools without basic resources such as books, pens, pencils or paper. Some have broken desks, classrooms with holes in the walls or ceilings, and a lack of proper sanitation.

Rally to Read supplies schools with portable classroom libraries containing books chosen for each individual school. It also delivers stationery, sports equipment and even educational toys for the development of preschool pupils.

Just as important as the tangible goods, however, is the teacher training that the programme provides. Each school is supported for three years, enabling it to stand on its own feet eventually.

Picture: Rally to Read
Picture: Rally to Read

This intervention, which has the support of national and provincial education officials, is vital. The average 14-year-old rural SA child has a reading age of seven, rendering him or her unable to cope with high school textbooks. The dropout rate is terrifying. Independent assessments show that Rally to Read schools bridge that gap, allowing pupils to make the transition to high school and even university.

Sponsors see this development first-hand. During its six rallies in 2019, Rally to Read took hundreds of sponsors and guests on weekend off-road excursions to deliver their goods in person to the children and communities they were helping.

For many people, rally weekends are their first experience of SA rural life "in the raw", and the experience — including the gratitude of children and parents — is often overwhelming.

Rallies start painfully early on Saturday morning, when participants load their vehicles with educational resources and then leave in convoy for schools. Off-road conditions are often friendly, sometimes treacherous. On most rallies, after visiting schools, Saturday night is spent in the nearest accommodation, usually a hotel, where guests share ideas and experiences over dinner. Everyone then heads home on Sunday morning. On some rallies, however, the departure is late Saturday afternoon, after a feedback session.

Food and accommodation costs on these weekends are covered by host companies. This year they were Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Shell, the OneLogix United Bulk transport group and the Jonsson Foundation, which is the corporate social investment arm of Jonsson Workwear. As lead partner of Rally to Read, Jonsson also underwrote Rally to Read’s administration costs.

The role of these partners and hosts is important, as it guarantees that all usual sponsors’ money goes straight to the schools. The programme’s national organising committee, led by Rally to Read co-founder Brand Pretorius, consists solely of volunteers.

Adding hosts’ contributions to those of sponsors, Rally to Read this year raised a total of just over R6.9m.

For more details on the programme and information about how to become a sponsor, visit rallytoread.co.za