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Mobile libraries serving rural Free State schools trigger improvement in learners’ linguistic skills

At a ceremony held on September 22nd at the President Hotel Bloemfontein, research was presented that validates the contribution made to under-serviced rural and farm schools by the Free State Department of Education’s (FSDoE’s) Mobile Library Service.

Fifteen start-up libraries for rural schools were also officially handed over to the FSDoE.


Mobile Libraries

The Mobile Library Service has been jointly operated since 2007 by the non-profit organisation the South African Primary Education Support Initiative (SAPESI), and the FSDoE, as part of its literacy programme. SAPESI manages the importation of suitably equipped buses from Japan and the FSDoE provides drivers and library assistants who assist teachers and learners in making full use of library resources.

The buses donated by SAPESI have been retired from service as mobile libraries for schools in Japan. Because of their low mileage, they are in good condition. SAPESI also organises other donors for the mobile libraries, including Sony Corp, which donates books, and companies who supply tyres and other equipment to keep the vehicles on the road.

So far, SAPESI has provided the FSDoE with 10 mobile libraries servicing 337 of the 1087 schools without libraries, the majority of which are in remote, rural areas. Overall, in South Africa, SAPESI has provided a total of 49 buses serving 835 schools. By 2020, there will be 75 buses serving 2 000 schools nationally.


Impact study

Wanting to define the impact of the initiative, the FSDoE requested support in 2014 from one of its partners, the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance (VVOB). VVOB commissioned the University of the Free State (UFS) to set up a research design, develop research skills with FSDoE officials, and guide the participatory action research project.

In participatory action research, those involved in a given project reflect on their contribution and how best to improve it. This positions them to take responsibility for project outcomes and equips them with the skills to resolve future issues in a sustainable manner. (Read more here, here and here).



The research shows a clear improvement in English reading and speaking capabilities among the primary children whose schools have been regularly serviced by mobile libraries.

“The children were able to converse comfortably with us in English and also read from their library books with ease and comprehension,” says Dr Lynette Jacobs, Head of the School of Education Studies. “By contrast, children from some schools that have not had access to the mobile libraries had very little understanding or use of English.”

“We also found that teachers were able to use the library books productively as part of their class management. In most rural schools, teachers have to teach more than one grade at a time. By having some grades read while others were being taught, the teachers are able to keep all their learners actively engaged in a learning process, even though they might be waiting their turn for a lesson.”

An ancillary benefit of the Mobile Library Service has been the reading of books by learners to adult members of their family who are illiterate, thereby contributing informally to adult education in rural areas.

Earlier in 2016, Dr Jacobs presented the findings of the research to the XIV Annual International Conference of the Bulgarian Comparative Education Society, where the Mobile Library Service was acknowledged by representatives of the international education community as an example of good practice in providing education to marginalised children.



The research findings have since led to several initiatives in the Free State. Researchers have already implemented changes which improve the service delivery of the Mobile Libraries. Amongst them was capacity development for mobile library operators and library assistants. Additionally, a Guideline on the functioning and operation of the Mobile Library Bus as well as a training programme on How to use literacy resources effectively in the classroom have been developed. The latter will be submitted to the South African Council for Educators (SACE) for endorsement.

In order to reach as many schools as possible, the schools that are serviced by the mobile libraries are changed every three to four years. To maintain the benefits at those schools no longer serviced by the mobile libraries, a programme of start-up libraries has been introduced.

The first 15 were officially handed over to the FSDoE on 22 September. Ten of the schools are in the Motheo district and five in the Lejweleputswa district. Each start-up library receives a collection of approximately 500 books and is set up by the non-profit organisation Biblionef. The libraries are sponsored by the SA Taxi Foundation, Sony Corp, Sumitomo Corp Africa, SAPESI, and Biblionef.


More pictures can be found here.