CORONAVIRUS: OP-ED

Why it can’t be education as usual

By Bua-lit Collective 14 April 2020

A silhouette of a pupil of walking to school on May 16, 2016 in Limpopo, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic and school closures, we need to plan and strategise creatively so that ALL South African children – not just those with access to digital devices, data, and network coverage – can continue to learn.

We in the bua-lit collective have argued for the need to take the typical South African child, who lives in under resourced and underserved communities, as the starting point in education. The vast majority of our learners attend no-fee schools in townships and rural areas. Many are already struggling in a system that is not designed for them. If we are serious about tackling the stark inequalities that characterise our education system, it is crucial to recognise who our learners are.

While provincial education departments are circulating guidelines for children to continue to follow the official curriculum via ‘online learning’, ‘e-learning’ and ‘e-teaching’, parents, teachers and children without access to computers, content in African languages, wifi and even electricity are wondering how they will learn. 

We are shocked by the failure of provincial guidelines to fully recognise the limited material  resources, as well as the living conditions of the majority of South African children and their families. We are concerned that the focus in the National Department’s proposals on ‘Curriculum Recovery’ is on curriculum coverage and assessment, at the expense of opportunities for learning.

We support the critique from the Progressive Principals’ Association contained in their letter to the Western Cape Education Department. We join them in challenging a programme that assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach and proposes solutions that fail to consider the specific challenges that face children and their families across multiple social divides. For example, as the UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education and the CEO of Plan International have warned, Covid-19 school closures will hit girls the hardest, alerting us to the “potential for increased drop-out rates”,  among other risks. Looking at the lessons learned from countries hit by Ebola, UNESCO calls on governments to include gender-responsive actions in their programmes.

The official curriculum requires ALL children to learn through the medium of English from Grade 4. We know the devastating effect this policy has for children who speak African languages at home. They will be hardest hit as they struggle with monolingual remote learning materials and programming available predominantly in English.

What civil society and government can do to create learning opportunities during school closures

  • We can focus on children’s learning, rather than on covering and assessing the set curriculum. In doing so, we need to recognise the need for specific distance learning strategies, which are very different from face-to-face learning. For example, one strategy is self-paced learning which will support children, especially girls, burdened by domestic work.
  • We can focus on creating opportunities for children to engage in meaningful drawing, creating, listening, reading, writing and performing activities that they don’t have enough opportunity for at school.
  • We can prioritise the provision of relevant content in African languages, especially to enable parents to support learning at home. But also to recognise, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has shown us, that language is a carrier of culture and meaning.
  • With wider and more equitable data provision, we can encourage the sharing of children’s creations with each other and with their teachers, via WhatsApp.
  • We can use radio and television to reach children and spread stimulating content and activities widely, for example hosting a national learning hour each day for each grade to help guide parents and guardians. But the emphasis should be on learning through meaningful activities, rather than on the delivery of rigidly defined content. Programmes should be repeated to acknowledge competing demands on children’s time and their limited access to TV and radio. Programming needs to be bi/multilingual to enhance understanding.
  • We can distribute low-cost children’s books and other print materials (including the Nal’ibali Multilingual Newspaper supplements) to households, if print production and delivery can be designated an essential service. Providers such as spaza shops, food distribution points and soup kitchens, as well as food chain stores can be used.
  • We can find ways to coordinate and mobilise the distribution, with food parcels, of books, paper, crayons and pencils.
  • We can create spaces where children can have a voice and a choice in how education decisions about school closures and changes to the curriculum are made.
  • We can support parents in the use of existing resources and also learn from them about how they are managing to support learning at home.

All of these undertakings will serve to boost confidence within families that they can build on the learning which is already underway within the home. Solutions like those suggested above, that are carefully tailored to meet the needs of and celebrate the resources and talents of all children, will help to alleviate the stress that families are enduring, and lift the burden of worry that so many carry. 

What we can’t expect

  • We can’t expect a highly prescriptive curriculum like CAPS to be ‘delivered’ remotely – it can’t.
  • We can’t introduce new content and concepts that will not be taught once schools reopen.
  • We can’t formally assess children during school closure.
  • We can’t expect parents, grandparents and other care-givers to be teachers, or facilitators of the official curriculum – though they may be able to support children’s learning.
  • We can’t expect children to have access to the devices, data and network coverage necessary to learn online. Even in many wealthy and middle-class families, parents are often working from home and using the devices themselves.

Our moral and ethical obligations to learning for ALL our children should underpin all decision making. We need a commitment to greater equality rather than interventions that exacerbate existing divides. We need to grasp this opportunity to address the inequalities in our education system and create responses and programmes that we can build on when schools reopen.

National and provincial education departments, schools and school management teams, teachers, parents and everyone concerned with education must think deeply about what it would mean to allow relatively privileged children to continue with learning in a way that is impossible for the majority of our children. MC

Authors: Soraya Abdulatief (University of Cape Town), Researcher and Practitioner in Academic Literacy, PhD candidate in School of Education.

Xolisa Guzula (University of Cape Town), Lecturer in School of Education and PhD candidate Multilingualism and Multiliteracies.

Prof Catherine Kell (University of Cape Town), Director of School of Education and specialist in literacy studies.

Glynis Lloyd (Independent), specialist in literacy interventions and educational publishing. 

Prof Pinky Makoe, (University of Johannesburg), Assoc Prof in Dept of Education and Curriculum Studies, specialist in language and literacy education.

Athambile Masola (University of Pretoria), Lecturer in Humanities Education Dept and PhD candidate, African women’s writing.

Prof Carolyn McKinney (University of Cape Town), Assoc. Professor in Language, literacy and Multilingual Education, School of Education.

Babalwayashe Molate (University of Cape Town), Translator and PhD Candidate in Language and Literacy Studies

Dr Robyn Tyler (University of the Western Cape), Language across the Curriculum Specialist and Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research.

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