Boys at Shea O’Connor school standing on their winning bridge design
Ongoing Project

Transforming Education

Transforming the educational landscape in South Africa through community engagement projects

Project summary

The Challenge

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. All sections of society must work together in order to address this complex issue.

The Approach

UK and South African partners creating the best practice model for community engagement to benefit the most disadvantaged schools and societies.

The Outcome

The defining factors of strong and weak project community projects identified and the impact of projects on educational outcomes is being explored.

Lead academics

Funded by

Project partners

The Challenge

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world (Gini index, 2019; Palma ratio, 2019; World Bank, 2019), operating in great complexity as a result of the legacy of apartheid.

Such inequality, and the resulting poverty, is so complex that it cannot be addressed by only working with those who are disadvantaged. All those living in South Africa – whether advantaged or disadvantaged – need to work together in order for these issues to be addressed.

Inequality can only be tackled by building partnerships throughout all of society (South African National Development Plan 2030)

One major inequality issue in South Africa is education. National attainment in maths and science education in the country is ranked last out of 148 countries. This project aims to understand the role that multiple factors can play in alleviating inequalities by delivering community engagement projects that bring together multiple stakeholder groups from across society.

The full research team

  • Dr Sarah Jones Senior Lecturer and Principal Investigator, University of Hull

  • Dr Adrienne Watson Deputy Head Teacher, University of Johannesburg and St Stithians College

  • Amy Websiter Community Partnership Manager, Michealhouse

  • Velaphi Gumbi Head Teacher, Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy

The Approach

Developed collaboratively with partners in the UK and South Africa, the project aimed to understand how a model of best practice for community engagement – operating within a complex environment – could be created to benefit the poorest and most disadvantaged schools and societies.

We took an innovative approach, drawing on multiple perspectives from the various partners – who already work in isolated pockets – to address the challenge of improving a state education system in crisis.  The project was underpinned by actor-network theory (Law and Hassard, 1999; Latour, 2005; Fenwick and Richards, 2010; Michael, 2017) and the notion of structural holes (Burt, 1992).

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives (Robert John Meehan)


  • Collecting preliminary data to inform a deeper understanding of the challenges, barriers and enablers to help the effective implementation of community engagement projects that assist those trapped in a state education system in crisis
  • Fostering, developing and fully establishing an in-country sustainable network of community engagement school-based practitioners. These will be critical in intensively and extensively transforming a fragmented and unequal educational landscape
  • Fostering and developing relationships with other key stakeholders, such as government Subject Advisors, Circuit Managers, universities, non-governmental organisations and other partners

The Impact

Early indications demonstrate that strong or weak versions of community engagement projects can be distinguished from each other by variations in the knowledge, intentions, relationships, communication and power dynamics between and across stakeholders, networks and hierarchies.

Next steps

Next steps include exploring the impact community engagement projects are having on the educational outcomes for underprivileged and socially disadvantaged schools. We are also investigating if and how a network of school-based community engagement practitioners could support Quintile 1 schools that are engaged in community engagement projects as donors to those even more disadvantaged than themselves.