Niall Mellon turns from houses to schools after crash

A recent survey found that two-thirds of South Africa’s citizens with no education were living in poverty, and so Niall Mellon has made the ‘natural progression’ from housing to education

Despite losing an estimated €150 million in the Irish property crash, philanthropist Niall Mellon says he is committed to continuing with his charity work in Africa, although his future endeavours will focus on education rather than housing.

The Dubliner had said he was wrapping up his successful Niall Mellon Township Trust programme in South Africa, which built 25,000 homes for the poor with support from thousands of Irish people, many of whom volunteered on the charity's annual building blitzes there.

But it was never meant to be an end to Mellon's philanthropic work, and this week a group of 200 Irish volunteers – about one-third of whom are builders – are constructing two schools in Nelson Mandela's home village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape province.

Improving the education system in South Africa is one of its government’s most pressing tasks. The link between poor education and poverty is well-established. According to a recent report by Statistics South Africa, in 2011 two-thirds of the country’s citizens with no education were living in poverty.

For Mellon, jumping from housing to education was a natural progression. While his property portfolio in Ireland had been taken over by the National Assets Management Agency (Nama), the township trust still had money in the bank, money that he had donated and that volunteers had raised.

“I’m still in the final stages of closing the door on our last house, but I’m pleased that, as a well-managed charity, we have wrapped up with a surplus of between $8 million and $10 million, which we are using to kick-start this programme.

“I’ve deliberately not asked the South African or Irish governments for money yet, as I’m patient and I wanted to spend the last few years perfecting our unique selling point in the educational space, but as soon as we are ready to upscale it we will target the usual suspects [in the donor community],” he said.

The need for investment in education in South Africa was highlighted by a ministerial task team last year, which investigated teaching in maths, science and technology. It noted that the national strategy was out-of-date, there was a shortage of qualified teachers, and curriculum changes had negatively affected teaching over the past 10 years.

More damning still, the World Economic Forum’s latest competitiveness report, which was based on interviews with various business leaders, placed South Africa as last out of 148 countries when it came to maths and science.

According to Cape Town-based education specialist Angela Schaerer, a former teacher with 15 years' experience who is currently Microsoft South Africa's academic programme manager, the problems affecting teaching can in part be traced back to the quality of education teachers received during apartheid, both at school and teacher-training colleges.

Subject knowledge

Universities have for the most part taken over the role of pre-service teacher training, and Schaerer says many do not model good teaching practice or provide sufficient support with subject knowledge. “Without appropriate training, educators tend to teach the way they were taught,” she said. “Some of the educators have not even finished secondary school themselves.”

To help improve the delivery of education, a large number of charities and private-sector groups have stepped in to assist provincial governments, with up to 700 private organisations working in the Western Cape education sector alone, says education department spokesperson Paddy Attwell. “Their activities range from school leadership, teacher and youth development to HIV support, drug awareness, sport, cultural activities, and language and maths tutoring, among many others.”

Mellon hopes his Mellon Educate Results Programme, which primarily focuses on mentoring and development support for principals and teachers, will contribute tangible improvements in some of these areas. He has put together a team of eight South African education specialists, who are tasked with designing and then rolling out the programme.

“It became clear to me that the gap in the market was in mentoring and development support for teachers and principals,” says Mellon. “The reality is that in South Africa we have 12 million kids in 30,000 schools and the pass rate is [about] 20 percent.”

Exam results

The project’s long-term goal is to substantially improve exam results for 100,000 poor children across Africa by assisting underperforming schools to reach a sustainable annual pass rate of at least 75 per cent after two years under its tutelage. The construction expertise garnered from Mellon’s township trust is also being utilised, with participating schools receiving refurbishment and upgrades prior to the delivery of training in order to create a decent environment for the students.

Over the past 12 months, the charity has built or refurbished schools in Nairobi, Kenya and around Cape Town. Of this week’s building project, Mellon says: “The measure of Mandela for me is the need in Qunu is every bit as great as anywhere else in the country. He did not seek to prioritise his home village for any special treatment. Irish politicians could take a leaf out of his book in that regard.”

As to how he is currently making a living, Mellon says he has a couple of potential projects in the pipeline, but he is unwilling to elaborate until they become more concrete. “I’m in discussions with some of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs together with private equity funds, and, while these people are interested in backing me, I find myself in limbo in terms of progressing these opportunities as there is no point getting involved until I’m released from Nama,” he says.

Read More