Improving schools through Rural Research


Blog piece by Craig Paxton (co-founder of Axium Education)
Photos by Matthew Moon

A significant chunk of Axium’s ‘raison d’etre’ is informed by the fact that we’re convinced that what we do here should be helpful to many… So while on a daily basis we’re motivated to serve the students and people we see in front of us to the best of our ability, we also try to keep in mind that we occupy a privileged position (funded privately, operating outside of the constraints of state education) that comes with it the responsibility to use what we do and learn to contribute more broadly to the issues facing the 40% of schools in South Africa that could be considered rural. This informs how we approach our work.

Our programmes and interventions generally have a very positive feel: there are useful resources; teachers and students generally learn something; they often feel motivated; they sometimes even feel empowered. This is often not the case at many rural schools, where the constraints of the system make it very challenging for adequate resourcing, learning and motivation to exist. As we interact with schools in our area, there is a constant reminder that as positive as our programmes seem to be, they are a drop in the ocean compared to the vast need for quality education in our area and in rural schools more generally. So if we are to address these bigger issues in any meaningful way as an organisation and as a country, developing a well-informed framework for rural school improvement seemed an important step to take.


Five years ago we* embarked on a research project to do just that. I have had (and in many ways continue to have!) reservations about the usefulness of academic research in the field of education, where so little of the research that is done seems to find its way to improving the practice of teachers and schools. Having said that, if the responses to our presentations to local schools, as well as to officials at District, Provincial and National level, are anything to go by, the findings of this research seem to have some potential to be useful.

Over the next few months I’ll be attempting to answer some of the big questions that the research examined in blog-sized bites**:

  • Why rural schools? And why here?
  • Why do rural schools seem stuck?
  • If you’re thinking about improving rural schools, where should you start?
  • How might we re-envision the role of district support to rural schools?
  • What does a great rural school look like? And how do we get there?

This is not the first education research to come out of Zithulele (and check out the growing health research database developing through our friends at Philani!), nor will it be the last, with Ingrid Mostert starting her PhD this year examining maths teaching in rural Foundation Phase classrooms. Over time we as Axium would like to become a hub*** for rural research that tackles real education problems in a way that helps us better understand the context and actually improves practice… not just here, but in thousands of similar classrooms and schools across the country.


*While in many ways this research was a solo venture and eventually resulted in my PhD, the effort was certainly a collective one, with input from many of my colleagues at Axium (particularly my wife!) and from teachers and students in the schools we work. My thanks to our board for giving their blessing to this project, and for the graciousness of my colleagues in dealing with my frequent absences and constraints on my time.

**If you’re too excited to wait, check out the six-page summary here.

***If you’re based at a university, or are considering embarking on your own rural research journey, do contact for ways in which we can work together.


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