Coronavirus & Schools

Education department needs to think carefully about plans to revive the school year

By Ayanda Mthethwa 17 April 2020

A young learner completes schoolwork at home while under lockdown in South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Bebe Kabvundura)

While the education department ponders a plan to restore the school year when the lockdown is lifted, some educators say an attempt to overburden the system with over-ambitious measures will merely place learners and teachers in a precarious position. 

In an interview with television news broadcaster, eNCA, the Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, said provincial departments were looking at how internal grades could be examined on at least 80% of the curriculum. 

Educators and experts say this is impractical considering the indefinite nature of the coronavirus pandemic. And so is extending school hours and cancelling holidays. 

Eunice Phiri, an educator at Wallmansthal High School in Soshanguve, said learners have had to deal with the anxiety of an uncertain future, compounded by the mounting pressure to cover the curriculum from home. 

“Some of these learners are not coping. They have been under immense pressure to continue with the curriculum while facing an uncertain future. And some are repeating grades, so they feel the need to push even as we are faced with a pandemic,” she said. 

The English language teacher emphasised that whatever plans the department is deriving must be sensitive to the pressures both teachers and students are confronted with. 

“We are all dealing with a pandemic,” she said. 

“There is limited time remaining for the rest of the year, we should look at every subject and distill what is the foundation of the content that needs to be taught,” said independent education consultant and educator Francois Naude, who strongly believes that it will be impractical to salvage the entire curriculum. 

Naude said the obsession with “saving” the school year is reflected in South Africa’s assessment-driven culture of educating, which is also observed on a global scale. 

“Our teachers are under immense pressure under normal circumstances to get through the content; if we decide on the fundamentals to learn for each subject, we should stick with that,” he added. 

Maryke Bailey, a history teacher and teacher educator, said children cannot be seen as machines and simply extend the hours they spend in classrooms. 

“We can’t expect that to translate into the same amount of learning under normal circumstances. That’s not how learning works,” she said. 

But what has also been reported is that “a lot of the private schools are getting on with it [learning] and making their own plans, but the government schools are constrained by state’s regulations,” Bailey said. 

Although the department has made provisions to have lessons delivered on various broadcast channels, including online resources, the existing inequalities in the education system do not guarantee the effectiveness of the various distant learning approaches. 

But for well-resourced schools, the impact of the pandemic and measures taken to curb it have not hugely disturbed teaching and learning.

“The department needs to be realistic about how much of the curriculum can be covered meaningfully by our weaker schools and give strong guidance to them about what the expectations are regarding assessments,” she said. 

Educator morale is vital for effective teaching, especially when there are added expectations to think creatively about how learner support can be maintained. 

“If we have more motivated, inspired and supported teachers, then they will have more urgency to teach in the best interest of the kids. It starts with the teacher, and also supporting the teacher,” Naude told Daily Maverick

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), Basil Manuel, said the union is advising the department not to obsess over saving the full-year curriculum. 

“Assessments are only possible if you have been teaching. If we get to the point where we will only be able to assess 50% of the work, then so be it. But we can’t be sure that we can save the entire curriculum,” he said. DM

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