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South Africa’s Grace Matlhape And Mary Metcalfe Named Top 10 Finalists For Africa Education Medal 2023

  • NEWSWIRE
  • 7 min read

Grace Matlhape,CEO of SmartStart, and Mary Metcalfe, Executive Director of the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes – have been named as Top 10 finalists for the Africa Education Medal 2023. Founded last year by T4 Education and HP in collaboration with Microsoft, the Africa Education Medal is Africa’s most prestigious education accolade.

The Africa Education Medal was established to recognise the tireless work of those who are transforming education across the continent – to celebrate the stories of those who have lit the spark of change so others will be inspired to take up the torch. It is given to an outstanding individual who has demonstrated impact, leadership, and advocacy in the field of education.

Grace Matlhape is CEO of SmartStart in South Africa, a social franchise that seeks to ensure every young child has access to a quality early learning programme in preparation for the opportunities ahead. Matlhape built SmartStart from the ground up into South Africa’s largest network of home-based early learning practitioners with more than 9,000 practitioners and 60,000 children. 

SmartStart was founded in 2015 to address the problem that an estimated 1.24 million South African children between the ages of three and five do not attend an appropriate early learning programme. Over 750,000 of these children are from impoverished communities, where affordability is a key consideration. Matlhape has pioneered a community-centred approach to providing an affordable early learning programme that prepares young children for formal schooling. The programme requires minimal set-up and is designed to be delivered within existing premises, including home and community-based settings. Using a social franchise model, the company taps into the experience of existing civil society organisations that recruit, train, and license women to launch and run early-learning social enterprises, for children aged three to five. This in turn gives work opportunities for the mothers and caregivers who provide the programme. 

SmartStart operates in all nine provinces and by 2030 it aims to reach 1 million children.

Matlhape began her career as a social worker in forensic psychiatry and later moved to psycho-social support as a community mental health social worker. Prior to SmartStart, she was Executive Director for the Wits Mental Health Society for seven years and also served as Director of Programmes at the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa, and as CEO of LoveLife, working to tackle the high rates of HIV infections among South Africa’s young people.

Matlhape sits on a number of boards and is a fellow of the Arnold Rainer Fellowship and the Leadership and Innovation Network for Collaboration in the children’s sector in South Africa.

Mary Metcalfe is a South African educationist, activist, and Executive Director of the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO), an NGO whose work impacts 3 million learners. Metcalfe is a highly respected leader and a passionate advocate for equal education who has been instrumental in developing South African education policy.

She has worked in education since 1974 as a teacher, principal, and lecturer. Before the democratic transition of 1994, Metcalfe was a member of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which stood against Apartheid, and from 1994 – 2004 she served as the Provincial Minister for Education for Gauteng. She joined the Development Bank of Southern Africa as the Lead Sector Specialist. While there she led a broad collaborative process to conceptualise a programme on systemic improvement in education. She left in 2013 to pilot the model at scale by founding the non-profit PILO.

At PILO, Metcalfe’s work focuses on the systemic improvement of curriculum management across the South African education system. Despite significant investment in public education, South Africa performs poorly in terms of delivering successful learners and enabling them to be socially engaged and productive adults. 

To meet this challenge, PILO works with Provincial Education Departments and the national  Department of Basic Education to design, test and implement change programmes aimed at improving learner outcomes that are driven by the departments themselves, locating responsibility where it must remain for the change to be sustained.  Support is provided to school management teams through district-based support teams, promoting positive system changes relating to curriculum management and leadership processes at school and district level, and practices and relationships supporting teachers that lead to incremental improvement in curriculum implementation. The support provided comprises materials and strategies which can be adapted to a range of teaching contexts, utilising evidence-based, and developmental practices for collaborative professional engagement. The programme is based on the principle of “What I do matters”.

PILO has worked in five provinces, accounting for around 30% of the school system, benefitting 8,000 schools, 130,000 teachers and 3 million learners. 

Metcalfe currently chairs a national committee within the Department of Basic Education, which has developed a post-COVID Learning Recovery Programme. During COVID-19 and the learning recovery period, Metcalfe assisted the teaching unions with large national surveys to determine school readiness for complying with COVID safety protocols, and on COVID related communication campaigns.

She is a Professor of Practice in the School of Public Management, Governance and Public Policy at the University of Johannesburg and is a Commissioner on South Africa’s National Planning Commissioner where she focuses on education and training.

Mayank Dhingra, Senior Education Business Leader, Southern Europe, Middle East and Africa, at HP said:

“My warmest congratulations to Grace Matlhape and Mary Metcalfe on being named Top 10 finalists for the Africa Education Medal 2023. Their tireless work to improve education stands as an inspiration to us all and I hope many others will follow in their footsteps to become leaders in the field.


“HP has a bold goal to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people globally by 2030. Only by joining forces and aligning with NGOs, government, educators and businesses can we truly improve the education environment. The Africa Education Medal brings together all those who are changing the face of African education, whose vital work deserves to be celebrated.”

Vikas Pota, Founder and CEO of T4 Education, said:

Africa’s teachers and school leaders, and its leaders of governments, NGOs and businesses, all play a crucial part in unlocking the continent’s potential through quality education.  African education stands at a crossroads in the wake of the pandemic, but if leaders from across the continent in every field can work together then they can build the lasting change needed.

“I congratulate Grace Matlhape and Mary Metcalfe on their achievements and I hope their success serves as rallying cry for changemakers to come forward and make a difference.”

The Top 10 finalists for the Africa Education Medal are:

  • Mary Ashun, Principal of Ghana International School, Ghana
  • Laura Kakon, Chief Growth & Strategy Officer of Honoris United Universities, Morocco
  • Rogers Kamugisha, Country Director of Educate!, Rwanda
  • Grace Matlhape, CEO of SmartStart, South Africa
  • Mary Metcalfe, former policymaker and CEO of Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO), South Africa
  • Martha Muhwezi, Executive Director of FAWE, Uganda
  • Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, Executive Director of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda
  • Simi Nwogugu, CEO of JA Africa, Nigeria
  • Sara Ruto, Former Chief Administrative Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Education and former CEO of PAL Network, Kenya
  • Snehar Shah, CEO of Moringa School, Kenya

Nominations for the Africa Education Medal opened in February 2023 for individuals working to improve pre-kindergarten, K-12, vocational and university education who are either educators, school administrators, civil society leaders, public servants, government officials, political leaders, technologists, or innovators.

The winner of the Africa Education Medal will be announced in July. Finalists will be assessed by a Jury comprising prominent individuals based on rigorous criteria.