OP-ED

Leveraging off Covid-19 – there could be a silver lining for education

By Riyaadh Ebrahim and Sipumelele Lucwaba 25 January 2021

(Illustrative image | Source: EPA / Nic Bothma)

The pandemic has raised challenges that offer us an opportunity for a radical reimagining of our education system that could change our future. As we mark World Education Day on 24 January 2021, we argue that social investors will be key to ensuring the success of collective and collaborative efforts between public and private sector players.

The year 2020 was a nightmare for almost all sectors of the economy. While education was certainly not spared the onslaught, it might be possible that the Covid-19 cloud may have created a unique silver lining for the sector.

Covid-19’s impact on education has been significant. First, there are the obvious school closures. By most estimates, this has resulted in a loss of about 82-87 days for all grades that were not open (grades 1-5 and 8-10) in 2020. Ordinarily there are about 200 school days in South Africa’s schooling calendar, meaning that about 40% of school time was lost. Given the number of variables still at play, it is guesswork to determine whether 2021 will see similar numbers. But it can be safely assumed that we will continue to see significant school disruptions.

In our education system, time for effective teaching and learning is absolutely vital and at this point, we simply do not have enough of it. There are a number of factors besides actual school closures that lead to additional losses of learning time (eg teacher infections and absences, variable levels of parental/community involvement in education). This presents an educational crisis, but may also provide an opportunity and compulsion to do something radically new.

A recent working paper developed for the National Planning Commission (NPC) examined the progress in the education sector against the National Development Plan (NDP). The paper reported significant progress towards some indicators, such as access to Early Childhood Development (ECD) services and tertiary education. However, the paper made two significant findings: “while progress has been made with respect to improved education outcomes, key education indicators point to South Africa being behind other middle-income countries… [and] South Africa is unlikely to exceed 60% of learners achieving minimum competency levels by 2030 [measured against the NDP target of 90%].” The paper further states that on some education indicators, South Africa performs at the level of low-income countries.

Although gains against targets that speak to “access and participation” are improving, and it is feasible that we will meet these targets (undoubtedly a significant achievement), the attainment of basic literacy and numeracy skills targets are much less likely to be reached. These are fundamental to a learner’s success and key to improvement of the system as a whole, as well as being essential for South Africa’s long-term economic growth.

The pandemic has highlighted critical inadequacies across the system. Elements such as adequate infrastructure and teacher provisioning are key in determining improvement, but also determine the quality of those improvements. Basic infrastructure and adequate teacher provisioning were inextricably linked to the ability of schools to reopen or implement alternative strategies for learning (eg physical distancing, virtual learning).

The 2016 PIRLS results stated that 78% of learners cannot read for meaning. While this is indicative of the health of the entire education system, these learners were largely concentrated in the poorest 80% of schools. These are the same schools that have had the greatest difficulty in implementing Covid-19 protocols and returning to the classroom (virtual or otherwise). For these schools, every change or “improvement” in the system may only serve to compound their problems rather than move them into the “radical new”. Any improvements to education must affect the 80% at the same – if not a faster rate – as the rest of the schools.

 4IR in the context of education

It is widely accepted that the world is in the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR. This is underpinned by a number of technologies, such as ubiquitous high-speed internet, artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing. These are the technologies that underpin 4IR but are not 4IR itself. Instead, 4IR is a significant change and departure from old systems of industry. The skills that industry demands are changing rapidly. There is also a shift in the way we interact with the world around us. This should be accompanied by a drastic change and realignment of education – the design and implementation of a fundamentally new model. Unfortunately, we are not seeing this happen at scale – not in South Africa nor across most of the world.

Many educationists and other interested and well-intentioned parties, including the Department of Basic Education (DBE), have toyed with ideas of increased reliance on technology to bridge gaps created by Covid-19. Broadly speaking, there are two technology camps: the optimists who aim to “leapfrog South African education into the 4IR” by investing in tech infrastructure (devices, connectivity, and software), and the pragmatists using whatever is available to access the greatest number of learners. Both are reactionary camps, and both are potentially missing the greatest educational “trick” of the 21st century.

Covid-19 has highlighted that there can be no so-called “leapfrogging” without getting the basics right. One common position is that one cannot pursue 21st-century education until the basics are in place, while an opposing view is that one must proceed with 21st-century education as the basics are an implicit part of the envisioned skills and competencies. What we propose is that regardless of which side of the argument one sits, intentionality is key.

Imagining the radical new

Ordinarily, it is not in the DNA of social systems to drastically depart from the old and into a wild new. But what if we imagined that it was possible?

What if we reimagined subject matter? We know that there are parts of the curriculum that are desperately outdated and need to be trimmed, and we also know that new subject matter (such as digital skills and ethics) needs to be introduced into the curriculum in response to the world we live in. This is not to suggest that “everything must go”, but some things clearly need a rethink. There should not be such a chasm between the real world and the “education world”, and the longer curriculum takes to align to the 4IR reality, the greater that chasm is going to become. 

What if we imagined new ways of teaching and evaluation? Most classrooms are still teacher-centred; teachers in front of a chalkboard and students learning/listening. There are movements around the world towards more student-centred classrooms; noisy and collaborative classrooms with much more engagement where teachers play a facilitator role. But what if we pushed this even further? What if we imagined a whole new classroom that is exclusively a collaborative space for learners? A classroom directed by learners and their interests within a framework of subject matter facilitated by the teacher. What if at the end of the period (week, month, year), the output that is “marked” is not how well a learner scores in an exam but rather something that they are able to produce of value; a critical thought piece about engaging with others in the digital realm, a piece of software that helps to increase user security or an activity that can reduce their environmental impact?

What if we reimagined an actual school-leaver? At present schools do not effectively produce school-leavers as much as they produce tertiary entrants. Learners who complete Grade 12 generally have to go into (usually very expensive) tertiary study before entering the job market or starting a business. We need a lot more young people who exit the schooling system (with or without a matric certificate) with the ability to thrive in the world and pathways that do not require extensive tertiary study. What might this look like? For example, a modular approach to post-school skills development could allow young people to generate income – and contribute to South Africa’s growth – more easily and sooner.

Another consideration is that we might be heading into 2022 needing to drastically trim curriculums as a result of the potential knock-on effect of lost schooling time. Covid-19 has already kickstarted a vast reimagination of industry and the world of work, while the trajectory into 4IR has been accelerated. With this as a backdrop, industry’s demands on education are going to be more profound and challenging than ever before. We also know that education is not in a position to meet these demands with the current resources at its disposal. This presents us with a challenge on all fronts that could provide the motivation and impetus for doing things entirely differently. This is the critical “opportunity” Covid-19 has presented us with. 

What is South Africa’ response?

There are various significant changes that the DBE is currently undertaking in pursuit of a version of the radical new. These changes seek not only to improve the quality of education in general, but also to develop a learner with the ability to pursue the opportunities and navigate the challenges that the 4IR presents.

In the main, these fall into three broad categories. First, curriculum development, which broadly includes 21st-century skills and competencies, basic literacies, the decolonisation of the curriculum, and the development of skills in response to the needs of the economy (eg vocational skills). Second, teacher development, which includes teaching for 21st-century learners, a focus on basic literacies, and the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to improve teaching and learning. Third, capacitating the system to deliver, which includes putting the appropriate systems, processes, and technological infrastructure in place to support the delivery of quality and relevant education.

The DBE is at different stages of implementation and development for each of the above categories, but most are in early-stage development or being implemented through small-scale pilots that have not yet reached system-wide implementation. Broadly speaking, there is a commitment to each, but the level at which they have been clearly articulated varies greatly.

Striking the balance

South Africa is not going to drastically reimagine a new curriculum and pedagogical approach in 11 months, and given the complexities of the system, this would in fact not be in the best interests of the country. Rather, we need to occasionally explore the wildly imaginative to reshape our paradigms and remind ourselves that we are not limited to a predetermined educational script.

Covid-19 is showing us doors that we could explore, and through that exploration there might be aspects of education that we could rally behind to realise certain changes.

South Africa’s radical new will likely be significantly milder than what we have allowed ourselves to imagine above – at least in the short to medium term – but without intentionally addressing present inequities, we will continue having multiple and vastly different realities within the system, and we will miss the opportunity for new ways of learning to become social and economic drivers.

The system is large and complex and intentionality presupposes large systemic change that encompasses initial teacher education right through to education support structures and what eventually transpires in the classroom. Without a comprehensive and collaborative plan that takes a phased approach to implementation, we will continuously see change taking place in small pockets that are unable to move the entire system – leaving us with islands of innovation in a sea of mediocrity.

The role of social investors

One of the most important learning points from the health system’s response to Covid-19 is the possibility of public-private partnerships to accelerate socio-economic development goals.

The first sparks of this model can be seen in the private sector’s continued and effective support to increase the capacity of the health system, but its true measure may prove to be the national vaccine rollout strategy. This centralised model seeks to leverage partnerships to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine. While there are still many unknowns, it appears that this will play an important role in making sure two thirds of the country receives equitable access to the vaccine.

While there is nothing in the education system that is directly comparable to the vaccine rollout plan, an important consequence for social investors is the need to reimagine programme implementation modalities and impact.

The significant changes taking place in the system will require support for small and large-scale pilot sites – in partnership or collaboration with the government – in order to begin to inform the radical new. Of course, there is much room to support various “traditional” interventions that focus on the basics as these remain core to the development of the system. However, there is a greater need than ever before for courageous social investors to proactively ensure their strategies are more intentionally aligned to national imperatives and strategic frameworks.

Similar to the health system’s response to Covid-19, while each stakeholder plays an important role, impact can be accelerated through collaboration driven by a clearly defined goal.

We need serious “collective and collaborative” efforts to bring about national change. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the ability of large systems to pivot in response to the country’s needs and that any “leapfrogging” we might seek to accomplish relies heavily on the ability to implement effective public-private partnerships to support and accelerate national priorities. Social investors focused on education must play a critical role in pushing this agenda forward. DM

Riyaadh Ebrahim is a social investment specialist at Tshikululu Social Investments and Sipumelele Lucwaba is a social investment analyst at Tshikululu Social Investments.

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