Awards 2001 The British Council Award for the Effective Transfer of English Language Skills

The British Council Award for the Effective Transfer of English Language Skills

This award, open to not-for-profit organisations worldwide, is given for the effective transfer of English-language skills and knowledge which directly contribute to sustainable development.

Runner-up: The English Language Educational Trust

Even before the black majority took over the government in South Africa, English was the medium of instruction from the fifth year in most black schools. But too few teachers were proficient either at teaching English, for them a second language, or at teaching in English. Pupils said little in lessons beyond responding in chorus to their teacher's questions.

In 1984 a major industrial and mining company, Anglovaal Ltd, sponsored the establishment of the English Language Educational Trust in Durban to promote reform. Mervin Ogle, who is particularly interested in the subject of reading, was appointed director, a post he still holds. Another important guide was Professor Keith Chick of Natal University.

ELET ran school workshops in English teaching and went on to run the Primary English Teaching in Rural Areas project, reaching about 300 teachers outside the cities. "In terms of the training of rural teachers, ELET has made an enormous contribution," writes one expert.

It also offered new qualifications which enable teachers to earn more money. The Further Diploma in Education course, in partnership with the University of Natal, lasts two years. Those taking part - 200 a year - travel to weekly or weekend classes in their spare time, at 15 centres spread around South Africa.

One of the tutors for FDE is Zimbili Maphanga. She took part in an ELET school project, took a certificate course and is now principal of a rural high school. ELET's work has reached over 5,000 English teachers in 17 years. The ELET teaching style encourages teachers to use more varied materials, and pupils to ask questions and take part in discussion. This requires a change of attitude from teachers, pupils and their parents. Traditionally, it has been regarded as disrespectful to question an adult.

ELET realised that there are practical difficulties in teaching pupils in a language other than their mother tongue. For example, the English word 'power' has different meanings in politics, physics and everyday life. How does a Zulu-speaking pupil tell one from another? Despite the prestige attached to teaching in English, teachers need to use pupils' mother tongues as a bridge when understanding in English fails.

ELET was involved in the British Council-funded Language for Learning project, for two years up to March 2001. In eight schools, teachers of several subjects sought to solve the problems of the multilingual classroom and to draw conclusions useful elsewhere.

ELET is now submitting a five-year programme to improve English-medium teaching in over 600 schools in KwaZulu Natal. It is also involved in the Siyathuthuka initiative. Siyathuthuka is Zulu for "We are developing". This initiative addresses a school as a whole, its management, its teaching materials, its instruction in maths and science as well as English; for it is hard to teach English well in a school that is poorly managed.

For similar reasons and to make schools cleaner and healthier, ELET began in 1998 to give English teaching a practical context by promoting health and environment projects in 340 schools, involving cleaning, gardening and studies of local trees. Training teams run workshops for teachers from the schools concerned.

ELET's director, Mervin Ogle, comments: "We were functioning in adverse conditions. Improving the quality of English teaching while learners were suffering the ill effects of poor health and sanitation and learning in bleak schools was always going to be compromised."

ELET supports itself from fees for projects and courses, plus grants from trusts and Anglovaal. It has had to streamline itself, concentrating on centres with sufficient students, but has survived when other organisations have gone out of business.

The Judges say

We were struck by ELET's vision for education in South Africa, which is guided by the values of access, equity, redress, tolerance and justice. Following these principles, ELET has been able to respond creatively and effectively to the education needs expressed by local communities in the poorest depths of the country. The trust has deservedly won respect and recognition within the public sector, and is to be congratulated for its persistent dedication to increasing the standards of English teaching throughout the country. There is little doubt that its work has made a real difference to thousands of teachers and students, spanning the social and income divide.

ELET, JHI Building, 369 Smith Street, Durban 4001
Tel: +27 31 306 8577
Fax: +27 31 306 8711