Episode 16: Helping kids to read for meaning and calculate with confidence in South Africa

In this episode, produced jointly between RISE and Building State Capability (BSC), BSC Director Salimah Samji speaks to Nangamso Mtsatse, CEO of Funda Wande, an NGO that works to catalyse improvements in foundational literacy and numeracy for children in South Africa. They talk about building local teams; creating a culture of measurement, reflection and learning; being intentional; and working within the constraints and opportunities of the system you are in for change.

Guest biography

Nangamso Mtsatse is CEO of Funda Wande (a not-for-profit organization that aims to equip teachers to teach reading-for-meaning and calculating-with-confidence in South Africa). Nangamso is also completing her PhD in Education Policy at Stellenbosch University and is an affiliated researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group. She has published her research in a number of accredited journals. In January 2019 she was also selected by the International Literacy Association (ILA) as one of the Top 30 Under 30 researchers around the world.


Funda Wande through the Lens of PDIA: Showcasing a Flexible and Iterative Learning Approach to Improving Educational Outcomes [RISE Insight Note] by Samji & Kapoor: https://riseprogramme.org/publications/funda-wande-through-lens-pdia-showcasing-flexible-and-iterative-learning-approach

Funda Wande [Website]: https://fundawande.org/

What Do Effective Instructional Materials Look Like? [RISE Blog] by Hwa: https://riseprogramme.org/blog/effective-instructional-materials

What is PDIA - Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation? [BSC Video]: https://vimeo.com/262046965

PDIA Toolkit - A DIY Approach to Solving Complex Problems [BSC Guide]: https://bsc.cid.harvard.edu/files/bsc/files/pdiatoolkit_ver_1_oct_2018.pdf

To solve the learning crisis, start with the problem [RISE Blog] by Marla Spivack: https://riseprogramme.org/blog/solve-learning-crisis-start-problem

Building on Solid Foundations: Prioritising Universal, Early, Conceptual and Procedural Mastery of Foundational Skills [RISE Insight Note] by Belafi, Hwa, & Kaffenberger: https://riseprogramme.org/publications/building-solid-foundations-prioritising-universal-early-conceptual-and-procedural

Aligning Levels of Instruction with Goals and the Needs of Students (ALIGNS): Varied Approaches, Common Principles [RISE Insight Note] by Hwa, Kaffenberger & Silberstein: https://riseprogramme.org/publications/aligning-levels-instruction-goals-and-needs-students-aligns-varied-approaches-common

More on PIRLS Assessment [TIMSS & PIRLS Website]: https://timssandpirls.bc.edu/pirls-landing.html


RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

Producers: Joseph Bullough and Katie Cooper

Audio Editing: James Morris


RISE Programme  00:04

Hello and welcome to the RISE podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research and practice. As part of the multicountry Research on Improving Systems of Education endeavour, funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Salimah Samji  00:23

Hello and welcome to this joint RISE BSC podcast episode. I'm Salimah Samji, director of the Building State Capability programme at the Centre for International Development at Harvard University. Today, I'm speaking to Nangamso Mtsatse, who is CEO at Funda Wande, an NGO that works to catalyse improvements in foundational literacy and numeracy for children in South Africa. In this episode, we talk about building local teams, creating a culture of measurement, reflection and learning, and being intentional. We also speak about how to work within the system you are in. Welcome Nangamso, we're really excited to have you on the RISE podcast this morning.

Nangamso Mtsatse  01:10

It is a great pleasure to join the podcast, have a conversation with you and share some of the work that we're doing. And I think also learning from from all the other conversations that have been happening around the RISE podcast series.

Salimah Samji  01:23

So let's get started. Nangamso, I'm wondering if you can share a little bit about what Funde Wande does as an organisation for some of our listeners who may not be familiar with your work?

Nangamso Mtsatse  01:33

Sure. So who's Funde Wande? Funda Wande is a non-profit organisation that is based in the tip of Africa, Southern Africa. We are an organisation that is on a mission to try and get all kids in foundation phase reading for meaning and calculating for confidence. It's a big, it's quite a it's, it's a it's a big goal, but we do we do believe in and sort of bold goals and courageous goals. So that's what we're trying to do. Currently, we are piloting or have RCTs in three provinces. And the very first one is an Eastern Cape. And they were really trying to answer the question of, you know, how how does teacher support in a form of literacy coaching and mathematics coaching, help improve learning outcomes. So they, it's really looking at like, putting in a coach in a school resourcing and training the teacher, in a nutshell. And then the second intervention is what I often say it's the true crisis of our country. So there's two big problems, many problems, but probably for me two problems in South Africa. It's youth unemployment, we've got up to about, I think the recent stat said 76%, of the youth of South Africa, unemployed, and we've got a early grade learning poor outcomes. So what we try to do is to explore with unemployed youth that have a metric, how do we use them in our very typical large school context? Under resourced. I mean, if you think of Limpopo, the average class size is one teacher to 45 kids. But we work in schools where there's one teacher and like almost 70 kids. So how do you effectively recruit an unemployed youth that has a metric? How do you effectively train them? What type of programme they must be following in order to relieve some burden? Or to assist the teacher in these contexts towards improving learning outcomes? And then the last one is Western Cape intervention, one that excites me because there's very, very, very fertile ground and probably one that is one step closer to this whole idea of scale up and what does the provincial wide intervention look like. And there we're really trying to answer the question of, should you capacitate the system, you know, prepare the system? You know, you train the subject advisors, you co-create the materials with the people with the curriculum advisors, you know. How does it scale and is it able to scale? And how well does the government system sustain its learning gains over time. So I think really, that's sort of what we do, or what we're trying to resolve. And sort of the three models that we're currently experimenting with.

Salimah Samji  04:49

You were among the first people hired to work at Funda Wande, what motivated you to join them?

Nangamso Mtsatse  04:58

So funnily enough is that the predecessor, Nick Spaull, probably needed to convince me over a two year period to join Funda Wande. So it wasn't an initial immediate, obvious choice. But just to share a bit of background is that I come from an university setup where, you know, lectured at UNISA in linguistics and applied linguistics, and also worked on the PIRLS international assessment, coordinated the African language assessment instruments, mostly. And I was starting really to get bored in a sense of the work, that there always seem to be misalignment between research and practice. We spent a lot of time in South Africa talking about the problem, but very little, you know, what actually works. So I think I started becoming quite inquisitive of understanding. Okay, cool, we know we underperform every four years. I mean, we would do research of text analysis, and all these different, interesting and very exciting research on applied linguistics. But I was looking to say, how do I transfer this into a an applied, you know, practical way where it will then shift teacher practices. So at the time, when Nick approached me, I think I was still very, you know, interested in getting my hands dirty on on syntax analysis. But I think, you know, I realised to say, okay, cool, we need actual things that will fly on the ground, and I need a space, or I need a project or a programme that will that will allow me to learn a lot more about how kids read how kids teach reading. And now I mean we've also brought on board mathematics, you know, so I'd say that may have been the turning point for me. It's this fertile ground at that time at Funda Wande. I think the founding CEO was still, you know, trying, I mean, typical setup. So I really came at a good time where there was a lot of leeway and freedom of one of the things that I actually want to experiment with was inside the classroom. So I was fortunate, very fortunate enough to be part of creating and co-thinking what the programme that now we are implementing looks like.

Salimah Samji  07:39

Wonderful, it's great to see how it was, you're wanting to move from research to practice, and that it took Nick two, I didn't know that, that it took him two years to convince you. What was the final, the final thing that you were like, Okay, fine, I'm gonna do this for you.

Nangamso Mtsatse  07:57

Well, probably, I must say it was one of the findings that I actually found in my master's degree. And basically, I was looking at test bias and through translations. I mean, many of these multi language cross language assessments, you know, in South Africa, we've got eleven official languages, there's a lot of contentious debates around, you know, has it been translated correctly? What about context? What about, you know, all of those things. So I was comparing my home language Xhosa to English, which most of these assessments are translated from English into the African languages. And when I saw it was a sort of a two part, you know, secondary analysis of the PIRLS assessment, and I spoke to numerous teachers in various different parts in the Eastern Cape, you know, trying to get their inputs to say, well, here's an assessment that has been translated, you know, using your own professional judgement, you know, can you grade it? Do you think it's pitched at the right level and so on? So I mean, very quickly, I realised that there was inconsistency, I mean, these are all the teachers that are teaching in similar contexts, same home language, all no fee schools, mostly in all rural areas, but the understanding of how to teach reading and how, you know, how do you grade assessment and test was very, very, very different. So I think for me, then was like, okay, cool. If we're having discrepancies on teachers understanding, you know, I'd like to unpack this. Why are teachers, why are there so drastically different approaches, but yet it's the same language. Surely, I mean, in English, you know, there's a systematic way in which you teach language, you know. So I think for me, that was probably the like, okay, cool. I want to be on the ground. I want to understand and sort of figure out the nuts and bolts of that.

Salimah Samji  10:03

So you found a problem that really mattered to you that you wanted to be part of solving?

Nangamso Mtsatse  10:09


Salimah Samji  10:12

At the Building State Capability programme at Harvard, and throughout our BSC podcast series, we talk about the value of problem driven iterative approaches, and how these can help us solve fundamental and complex problems. At Funda Wande, you use an iterative learning approach to find context appropriate solutions. Can you share an example of how this works in practice?

Nangamso Mtsatse  10:38

Sure, so I mean, look, I think, given where we are as an organisation, we are five years. And we sort of towards the end of our first round of RCTs. And we really went into this being quite blunt and open about this.  This is a long term game for us. 78% of kids in South Africa cannot read for meaning. So we generally do think that, and we have taken the approach of, you know, we were bold, and then we go back and reflect. We iterate and then we go back and test again. But along the lines, we have probably seen some elements, if you think about it as a school bag or a briefcase or toolbox. There's been some small little tools that we have been able to say Okay, right, that works. Okay, advocates, policymakers, government in the same room, let's, you know, get this to scale. And there have been many times where we've actually like, we thought it was going to work, it didn't work. So I probably can give you two examples. The one is we initially started off with a lesson plan approach, mainly targeted at at the teacher level. And the teacher received the the resources and the training to be able to teach the reading. Now, I often joke and I say it's, it was a box of goodie bags, you know, teachers got lesson plans, posters, reading books, all these sorts of things, right? DGR booklets, you name it, it was really a lucky packet, for lack of a better term. And we I mean, after the first year of implementation, teachers were like, these resources are nice, they're cool, you know, I don't have these are my day to day classrooms. But what the hell, you know, first, I'm using my assessment booklet here. And then I must pick up my poster. I'm everywhere, you know, and the feedback that we were getting constantly from the coaches and the teachers themselves is that, you know, it actually takes a lot to be able to change teacher practice and rather than adding things, what we needed to do on, and the lesson learned here, was to prioritise and to simplify our programme, so that teachers at multiple levels can deliver the programme. So from after, imagine it, after one year, we went back to the drawing board. And now we are implementing the workbook approach, which is a much more less complex, less moving parts, we call it one stop shop, where a teacher gets a teacher guide. And then the learner gets the booklet and then the teacher every day, it's like you just turn onto one page. Monday, this is what I'm doing, next page. And you don't have to go anywhere else, or have to access things anywhere else, then that teacher guide and then obviously for the learner themselves, the actual workbook. So that's one example I can speak to, probably one of teacher training development. So we initially started with the whole formal university teacher training development, and I think that has, and is still, you know, adding a lot of value. We've seen a lot of other institutions wanting to adapt that course, which was one of the first advanced certificate courses that were accredited for this new teaching framework that was issued by the Department two years ago. But what we also learned was that our education system, most of the teachers, a bulk of them are like 45 Plus, a lot of them are not interested in being enrolled in a university and attending classes every week or whatever the case is. We needed to rethink a different model that we can touch or access or sprint or get a lot more teachers accessing accessing the course.

Nangamso Mtsatse  14:58

At the University prices, I mean, it cost us probably over two years, it was a part time course, it cost the teacher 25,000 Rand, that's probably about in US dollars, if I'm not mistaken, probably about $1,200, more or less. So we needed to go back, we were like, Okay, we're not touching the numbers that we should be touching at the rate that this problem is severe. So we then created a much more, less academic dense, a free training, self-paced course, that is housed on our website. And now we've partnered up with actual government teacher development directorates that they use as their standard training course for teacher development. So here's something that it did work, it is working, it has set a sort of the golden standard of what a programme at a university level looks like. But we felt that the needle was being moved relatively slow. And we needed to be able to get as many teachers to be able to access this course  at a no cost self-paced, but you get the exact basics, or at least the fundamental content knowledge that you would need to be able to teach reading.

Salimah Samji  16:30

Thank you for sharing those examples. You know, I like the second one where something already works, but you think about meeting the teachers where they're at, not where you think they may be, where they are. And then your first example, where it really is about integrating your tools into a one stop shop and simplifying, right, the power of simplicity. I particularly like this one year, like that's a lot of investment that you're already doing this, and then you go back to the drawing board. How do you create an organisational culture that allows you to even say, Okay, we have been, not wasting time, but we can do this much more effectively, right? So again, it's the framing of how do you create that culture in an organisation to allow you to pivot when you need to do that?

Nangamso Mtsatse  17:22

Yeah. And look, maybe another side of this could be that at the timing that this all happened, we were not operating like a startup organisation, you know, we were all cramped up in a little small apartment. That was like, literally bedroom apartment that was converted as an office space. Right. So it was at a time where, like I mentioned earlier on, with a lot of flexibility. At that time, we and still, I mean, we were quite intentional about being reflective. What we do, and we are in particular, we take our data, sort of feedback very seriously, you know, so I think we, there's been things like that, I mean, also this is, you know, in respect to Nick to be able to identify the correct talent that is required, like I mentioned to you, that he probably courted me for two years. At that moment, I was like, why are we having this conversation every time when I meet up with you, you know, I'm not coming, but clearly had the vision to say, okay, if I'm trying to build a team that looks like this,  to Funda Wande. What are the expertise, you know, that I'm looking for? Who are the people that are going to be here for the long run? And actually, I think most importantly, in the South African context, African context is to say, we've got an influx of a lot of programmes that are dominated by internationals, right. We get a lot of, you name it, from all these various other countries that want to tell us about how you implement a reading programme in Eastern Cape where kids have to walk, you know, over rivers and whatever the case is, and I think one of the secret ingredients is to being very intentional to say, it must be those people that understand that context better that lead the content development, that lead the programmes. It must be the people who have the language expertise and people that can relate to the teachers, to the parents, and the principals and the governments, and so on. So, it happened organically and I'm very, I don't want to say it wasn't a, this is what we want our culture to be like. It probably meant quite a visionary outlook and thinking about what is the type of talent that I need, or that we need, and where do I tap in, you know. Who other networks and who are the people? And also mind you, it's not always that we were able to find talent. I think also being quite quite intentional about capacity building to say okay cool, you know, we may not find, here's just an example, we may not find an Xhosa language writer. Cool, but you start with someone who is probably coming out of a university space who understands a lot about linguistics, but how do we develop her and get her to sort of think at that wavelength where it will be helpful in a practical sense. So I do think, and really around Table Mountain, one of the Seven World Wonders in tourism in the world here in Cape Town, and I'll probably summarise it into probably talent is crucial, crucial, crucial, crucial. Context, bringing along the people that understand that context. I like to bring them along as experts as people that are heard and their knowledge about those systems is quite critical. And I think the third one would be giving people the right exposure and opening up the networks in order for them to thrive in the work that we're doing.

Salimah Samji  21:28

Yep, I love it. This, you know, your what you call the secret ingredients, the flexibility, the reflecting on feedback. And I think this intentionality, what you talk about the local talent, the context, the language, being able to identify with the teachers and the students. It's that intentionality of building your team that I think is particularly powerful about Funda Wande. Now, you know, as an NGO, focused on improving learning outcomes, you work with a much larger ecosystem of players, you're not the only ones there, you're not the only game in town. How do you build authorization and legitimacy to ensure that the work that you're doing can scale?

Nangamso Mtsatse  22:10

Sure. And I think I probably would also add to that, is that and that we're also not the silver bullet to solving the literacy crisis in South Africa. Right. So I think we quite we're very cognizant that as much as people often are so shocked that how much work we've done in the last five years, we have only been five years old, as an organisation, right. I think at the scale that we're operating, I mean, sort of, we've got four site officers doing RCTs in three provinces. I mean, Funda Wande in total is working in about 280 schools. So really saying, look, they have people in within this broader sector that have been around, and they are a lot of lessons learned from some of the work that they have been doing. Lessons learned that we control from already existing organisations. But I think I'll speak to probably, what four or five things. That legitimacy and authorization, we kind of brought it in sort of one. So we've been intentional about trying to find pedagogical levers of change. What are the things that that are that really change learning outcomes? Right? In particular within the current education system setup. We're not trying to burden the system, we're not trying to be like, Oh, add this, add this, add that, at that. You know, it often when you talk about scale, and now we want government to own this, it becomes tricky. I think the second thing is to remain relevant and responsive to every situation. COVID is a good one. For instance, I mean, we went from on site visits to school lockdown, and then we're like, okay, cool. Now, how do we respond to this? How do we continue supporting the schools that we are doing? And how does this fit into the broader conversation within the South African education sector around things like COVID catch up, rotational timetables, and so forth? So being being quite thoughtful about those types of things. You know, wanting to be part of the table, and I know this is probably a very contested sort of metaphor, but also remaining to be thought leaders within the sector. The third one, I probably will say is the data story. We strive and we pride ourselves, in fact, that we are evidence based NGO. So and quite heavily on the research. And we believe that that is probably our comparative advantage of many early grade programmes in South Africa. So like I said, they've been ones that we've been running for years, but have never been, you know, sort of been independently evaluated, never sort of clear, like, what is the impact and so forth. So for us, we are a research intensive, we let our data, not only just as data, but to also keep us honest. Probably another one I could think of is responsible scale. Right? So legitimacy within the broader sector, with government and so forth, is that to say, we do not advocate for scale when we don't believe or have evidence that something works. But we are having conversations now, after a few years, there's been data, there's been evidence of things that work. Now we can have that conversation. People often say to me, but you working in three provinces, there nine provinces in South Africa, why don't you guys just roll this up? And I'm like, Whoa, you know, it's important for us to pilot, independent evaluation, and then we will talk about what the standards look like, on a national scale. Lastly, I think probably more critically, is that our interactions are often shaped as we tried to build a programme for the system. Funda Wande, we don't want to scale things, we see ourselves as a test ground. And as an experiment ground, which feeds into government's initiatives and work. And government must do their job. We're not here to do government's job. We don't plan to be in the 400,000 schools that we have in the country, we don't have the capacity. We don't have the funding for that, in fact. But how do we, collectively with government, partners, policymakers, and so forth, how do we create a package for the system? And we say, we will be the test ground. Right, we will be the experimental ground that I know with government budget constraint, they're not in a good position. So I mean, I think those few things, you know, being consistent at it, and I really must say, probably, our principals that we work by, that has in the long run, have created the sense of legitimacy, the sense of voice within the sector, key stakeholder, partner with many government, provincial governments, you know? Yeah. so I hope I have answered your question.

Salimah Samji  27:51

No, you absolutely have. And I really like in particular, your you know, it's very clear from everything you talk and how you talk about FUnda Wande, the intentionality that you, you actually have with everything. With your pilots, with your work, with how you reflect, how you measure, staying true to yourself, but also, with how you think about scale. Scale, not for the purpose of scale. Scale, when it is the right time, right? And I really like that thought. Now as the new CEO of Funda Wande, what's your vision? You know, Nick, it took Nick, two years to get you there. The organisation is five years, you are now the new CEO, where do you see Funda Wande in the next five years? Where do you want to take it?

Nangamso Mtsatse  28:40

Sure. So I think and I think probably the timing of the recruitment and appointment also, I think it allows me a lot of manoeuvre room in a sense that one, I was, I was part of the Funda Wande team. And now we currently, what I call the end of phase one of Funda Wande. So basically, we are at the, does it work phase, our current pilots that we are running with three provinces, the endline, for two of them is at the end of this year, and the endline for one additional one is at the end of next year. So it's really an interesting time that now we're going to really be able to measure our impact and really see in the last four years, you know, what are the gains? I know, COVID has thrown a little bit of spanner to that. Which means that in the next phase, for me leading the team is now can it scale, right? These different tools that we have some work, some didn't work. And, we're gonna get the data to that and really exploring different models of can it scale. So I think, for us, for me, particularly is amplifying our advocacy efforts. Our continuing to raise awareness about this critical issue. Often I'm playing the role of sort of a convener, and if I may put it in that sense, how do you get researchers, policymakers, NGOs, funders under the same roof? And I think, I mean, we know, we now sort of already starting to plan one of our interventions, particularly the Western Cape one. I mean, they are wanting to roll out our programme to the targeted low performing schools. So I think it's very easy when we talk about these small little things that are able seeds that are planted in it to grow into, you know, trees, or whatever the case is. I mean, it's going to be critical on you know, does it scale? And is it sustainable for the system as well? So and I think, other than that, sort of trying to figure out what can scale can it scale, because now we know what does work and what doesn't work, I would probably also add, really, internally, as a team, now we're going to have all of this information, we want to be able to break it down a bit. We want to be digging deeper now, and really trying to understand what has been those levers of change. You know, and why, and really just probably going through another round of iteration. So it's kind of like a lifecycle, you know, you plan your design, implement, reflect, redesign, and so on and so forth. But I think there is many windows of opportunities for us to really start tapping into more scalable partnerships with government and other organisations.

Salimah Samji  31:54

What an exciting time for Funda Wande. What is the one thing you wish people knew about the education system in South Africa?

Nangamso Mtsatse  32:05

I mean, the one that top of my mind really is the African literacy education system, it's probably not that much different to many other African countries. So I think for a very long time, I was living under a rock. And I thought some of the challenges and the things that we face as a system is pertaining to just South Africa, it's just a South African problem. But I very quickly learned that some of these challenges that we face is general to sort of developing countries, African countries, which I think raises a lot of partnership opportunities across African countries, to be able to learn from each other and share from each other. So that's the one, that our problems are not unique. We're not the ugly stepchild on the continent that, you know, seemingly struggles to get it right. There many other countries that are also in a similar position, that are also grappling with the same issues that we have. I think South Africa has a lot of human capital that gets invested into the system. But we're not really seeing the outcomes of that investment. If you look at and if you compare sort of our GDP allocations, that's a lot of money. But there's a lot of systematical issues that we probably need to address. And lastly, I want to add, add, to this point is to say, we're trying to fix a political problem through a technical solution. At least for the South African context. So a lot of these things, it's more political than technical and I think we tend to think that because it's a technical problem, and therefore we need technical solutions.

Salimah Samji  34:08

Wonderful. Thank you so much Nangamso. It's been a real pleasure to have you on this podcast.

RISE Programme  34:17

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at riseprogramme.org or follow us on social media at RISE Programme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other worksheets under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.