NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our Business Leader feature and today, October 30, 2019, we speak to a lady who was called all the way from the United States to join an educational project here in South Africa which seeks to deliver so-called “blended high-quality learning that is affordable”.
I’m joined in the studio by Bailey Thomson Blake, the chief of schools at Spark Schools. Thanks very much for joining us, Bailey. Spark Schools has been running since around 2013, so what’s its value proposition and what’s this concept of “blended learning” all about? I see that Spark has grown to some 21 schools since.
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Thank you so much for having me. At Spark we believe that every child deserves a high-quality education, and that parents should be able to provide that education to their children at an affordable price.
So in 2013 we began opening primary schools which use a blended-learning model. That’s a fancy term for mixing technology with traditional teaching. Our model allows us to ensure that our students are learning a globally competitive curriculum at a price that is affordable and accessible.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. Before you moved to South Africa in 2012 to help set up this educational institution that is Spark, what were you doing? Perhaps you can indulge us a little with your educational and professional progression up to that point.
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Absolutely. When I moved to South Africa in 2012, I was coming from California, where I had been working for a network of schools called Rocketship. Rocketship Public Schools pioneered blended learning in the United States, so my experience was in primary school teaching in a blended-learning model.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And in terms of your educational background, were you always a teacher? What’s your background?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: I came to teaching in a roundabout way. At university I majored in government and Middle Eastern studies, but had the opportunity to teach in a programme called Breakthrough in Houston, Texas, one summer during university, and felt very compelled by the idea that students of all backgrounds deserve an opportunity for an excellent education. So I was not necessarily bound for education as a profession, but I feel absolutely committed to it now.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Wow, that’s awesome. You are the chief of schools at Spark. What does that role entail, exactly?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Well, I have the best job in the world! And certainly at Spark in my role my team and I support our awesome school leaders – the principals, the assistant principals and school operations managers of our schools – to ensure that they can deliver on the promises of our learning model. So, on a day-to-day basis, that looks like visiting schools, meeting with principals, holding professional-development sessions and ensuring that they have everything they need to execute this unique and innovative model.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. What drove you to come all the way to South Africa to be involved in the Spark project?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Well, I met Stacey Brewer and her business partner in 2012 when they were researching and wanted to begin to grow a network of schools, and I must say I felt completely convicted by the vision that they had. They believe that every parent should have an opportunity to provide their child a great education and I felt very strongly that South Africa could have education equity in the future. So, I came here sight unseen and haven’t left.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I see that Spark trains its educators to the tune of some 245 hours per annum – professional development training. It’s very impressive indeed. But what sort of enhancements are they working on in those hours?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: That’s a great question. We offer about a decade’s worth of professional development in a traditional system to our teachers every single year, and that professional development runs the gamut from classroom and behaviour-management strategies to specific content areas, because all of our teachers are experts in their subjects. Even from Grade R our students rotate from class to class for subjects, the way you and I might remember from high school. They start doing that from the early years. So our teachers are professionals who are content experts and who deserve an opportunity for professional development on a weekly basis to improve their execution in the classroom.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Outside of Spark, when you look at South Africa’s broader educational outcomes, particularly in government schools, what’s your critique of why the outcomes are not what we’d all prefer them to be?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: I certainly believe there is a crisis in South African education, and I think that it’s for all of us to take responsibility, both in government and in private institutions. The ecosystem itself appears to be broken, and in my view it begins with treating our teachers as professionals and providing them the professional development and support that a very difficult childlike teaching requires.
There are specific outcomes in literacy, maths and science which are concerning, but I think it begins with nurturing a set of teachers who are respected and have the esteem that they deserve for the very difficult job that they do.
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Being in a leadership position in the education space, what are the absolute fundamental principles you feel you need to pursue?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: For me there are a few things which are non-negotiable. The first is that I believe that every child can learn and should have an opportunity to do so. I believe that teachers are professionals and need to be treated as such. And I believe that money isn’t the fundamental issue in education. I think with a smart use of resources and with professional development we have every opportunity to turn education around in South Africa.
NOMPU SIZIBA: We have the very real problem that many of our children can’t read for meaning in Grade 4. Obviously there are many socioeconomic reasons for that but, faced with the problem, now that we know what the problem is, what are some of the solutions we can consider so that this is not a problem going forward?
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: That PIRLS Report Reading Literacy Assessment from 2016 was pretty devastating beyond the fact that it says that 78% of Grade 4s in South Africa can’t read for meaning. It also noted that the teachers of the students who were tested – more than 90% of them had a tertiary degree in education and 40% of them had 20 or more years in education in terms of experience. The reason that that’s so concerning is because it says that institutions of education for teaching teachers are not preparing them for the classroom, and then years of experience also isn’t a guarantee that teachers will know how to teach students adequately. So, in my view the best way to address this is to begin with teacher education and training, and to ensure that school leaders, principals, deputy principals, heads of schools are really prepared to support their teachers as professionals.
NOMPU SIZIBA: The issue also is that at the end of the day learning for children begins at home. Some homes are broken, some children don’t have people to read to them, or to whom they can read. What’s your advice to people who are listening? Maybe they are not as literate as they’d want to be, maybe they are not as educated as they’d want to be, but they want to be of some support to their children so that whatever efforts are being made at school are reinforced at home as well.
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: I believe so strongly that parents are children’s first and best teachers. I believe it’s the role of schools to partner with parents, to equip them, to provide them with resources as requested, to hold workshops. I have seen a set of willing and committed parents who want very much to support their child’s growth. Parents are not trained teachers and, just as we would not expect a parent to be a doctor, we shouldn’t expect a parent to be a teacher. But what we should do is with open arms and open doors to invite parents into our schools to learn more about their children’s curriculum, to understand their child’s academic progress and to take some simple tips home that they can do.
A love for reading can be nurtured at home and there are some very simple things that parents can do, beginning with simply having books in the home. But I understand that some of these challenges and obstacles need the support of schools in order for parents to feel they are really effective with their children.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Bailey, I love your passion. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
BAILEY THOMSON BLAKE: Thanks for having me.