Maverick Citizen


Inequality warning: The pandemic’s impact on education

Inequality warning: The pandemic’s impact on education
Kuwadzana Primary school children in Harare, Zimbabwe walk home after reporting for school on 9 November 2020, seven months after schools had closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When they got to school the children were turned away because teachers were on a wage strike. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aron Ufumeli)

Access to education has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments across southern Africa closed down educational institutions for the greater part of 2020. At the beginning of 2021, we are beginning to see some of the costs.

School environments were viewed as potential super-spreaders, considering the amount of interaction among learners and teachers, and the frequent use of surfaces such as desks, boards and chairs. Learners also use communal toilets and taps for drinking water, hence it was feared that schools were dangerous places for the transmission of the virus. 

The traditional approach to education through face-to-face teaching in classrooms became unviable, with little planned to replace it. Most governments swiftly developed Covid-19 rapid response strategies to enable learning to continue. 

The strategies focused on remote and mostly digital learning activities, including online learning, encouragement to read textbooks and listening to educational television and radio programmes. According to the World Bank, the uptake of these programmes varied widely, with nine in 10 children engaged in learning activities in Burkina Faso, and six in 10 in Nigeria, but only three in 10 in Mali and less than two in 10 in Malawi

Millions of people in poor households grapple with inadequate access to electricity, the internet and access to televisions and radios, as in Ethiopia, where the majority of the population live in rural areas. A study commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa in June 2020 revealed that across 10 African countries, less than 15% of school leaders were keeping in touch with at least 80% of their pupils.

This article examines how the measures implemented in the education sector, however well-intentioned, affected children’s rights to education and inequality in the education system.

Despite government efforts to save the 2020 academic year, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe reported a drop in pass rates. The sudden switch to using digital instruction may have led to suboptimal results. The situation also exacerbated the wide disparity in provision for the “elite” and for the less advantaged pupils, particularly those with limited or no access to basic socioeconomic rights. 

The South African matric pass rate dropped by 5.1% in comparison to 2019. Authorities attributed this to the pandemic and the time the learners lost during the lockdown. 

On 22 February 2021, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga reported that South Africa achieved a 76.2% pass rate in the 2020 matric results, down from 81.3% the previous year. A total of 607,226 candidates registered for the November 2020 National Senior Certificate examinations, while a total of 578,468 learners wrote the exams.

Motshekga said that despite the drop she was pleased with the results as she had been expecting a “blood bath”. She added that more learners received Bachelor degree passes than last year’s cohort, while there was a 13.1% increase in the number of distinctions.

Schools in South Africa were closed between March and June, and again in August 2020. While partial reopening provided additional days of schooling for key grades, particularly seven and 12, the closures cost learners between 30 and 59 school days. Matric pupils lost about a quarter of their final year. 

In January 2021, the Basic Education Department’s Director-General, Mathanzima Mweli, reported that about 15% of public school learners (both primary and secondary), almost two million children, had not returned after lockdowns in 2020. 

This had a negative impact on the quality of education, given the reduced interaction time, fewer teaching days and, according to Stellenbosch University’s Professor Servaas van der Berg, the loss of more than 2,000 teachers to Covid-19.

The general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union, Mugwena Maluleke, said a drop in matric results was to be expected. Maluleke said inequalities in SA had worsened the situation. Rural schools experienced a delay in reopening after the initial hard lockdown, due to a lack of personal protective equipment and proper ablution facilities. Additionally, many pupils simply didn’t have access to technology that allowed for remote learning.  

In Zimbabwe, 88 primary schools reportedly recorded a 0% pass rate in the Grade 7 examination results that were published by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec) in February 2021. Zimsec board chairperson Eddie Mwenje said the pass rate decreased by 9.79%, a development that he attributed to the pandemic. Learners had reduced teacher-learner contact time in 2020 mainly because of restrictions, which included schools being closed from March 24 to September 28 2020. 

According to the Zimstat report on the Covid-19 impact on households in Zimbabwe, only 25% of learners in rural areas engaged in any learning activities during the six-month lockdown, while only 70% of learners in urban areas engaged in any learning activities. 

The results revealed that nine of the top-10 ranked schools were in Harare province, while Bulawayo province did not have a school in the top 40. The 10 worst schools (0% pass rate) were in Matabeleland province.

Teachers bemoaned the drop in the 2020 Grade 7 pass rate and urged the government of Zimbabwe to work with mobile network providers to ensure that data for online lessons is made affordable. 

The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) and the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe accused the government of neglecting basic school infrastructure and denying rural schools access to e-learning facilities. 

Artuz national secretary Nation Mudzitirwa also said the salary dispute between teachers and employer had not been resolved when learners went back to school in September, so the majority of teachers were unable to report for work, and learners wrote examinations without completing their syllabi.

MDC-T legislator Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, who is also chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education, has urged the government to allow pupils who failed their exams to rewrite the crucial test. She said many children from less privileged families had not received a proper education. 

She said: “If there is anything that the Covid-19 pandemic has done, it has exposed government’s reluctance to expedite online learning, which was recommended by Dr [Caiphus] Nziramasanga back in 1999,” 

Botswana recorded a significant decline of 4.04% in the 2020 Junior Certificate Examination (JCE) results. On 8 February 2021 the Botswana Examinations Council announced that 80.72% of the 2020 JCE candidates obtained Grade E or better (pass grades), compared to 84.76% in 2019, while 33.16% of candidates obtained Grade C or better (credit grades) compared to 35.38% in 2019 – a 2.22% decline.

However, on a more positive note, a total of 43,883 candidates sat for the examination, an increase of about 7% compared to 41,048 candidates in 2019. 

Countries with higher pass rates during Covid-19 than before

Despite the Covid-19 related challenges, Eswatini, Malawi and Namibia recorded higher pass rates than in the previous academic year. 

Prior to Covid-19, the Inclusive Internet Index reported in 2019 that only 29.5% of households in Namibia used the internet. This translated to about 70% to 90% of learners and students with limited or no access to education for the duration of the school closure. 

Confirming this, Minister of Education Anna Nghipondoka revealed that only 13,000 learners were able to access the ministry’s e-learning platforms during the national lockdown.

“This is less than 2% of the total population of 804,000 pupils in state and private schools in the country,” she said.

It was against this background that authorities in Namibia decided to lower the minimum promotion requirement. On May 12, the National Examinations, Assessment and Certification Board announced the relaxation of the pass mark for learners in grades 1 to 9 from 40% to 35% for the 2020 academic year only. The new promotion requirements were applicable to all government and private schools that are registered with the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture and which offer the Namibian curriculum.

This led to an improved pass rate in the National Secondary School Certificate examinations from 61% in 2019 to 63.5% in 2020. However, this was a drop from the 66.7% recorded in 2018. 

On 23 March 2020 the then president of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, declared Covid-19 a national disaster, despite the country not registering any cases at the time. He ordered the immediate closure of all learning institutions, including schools, technical colleges and universities. The closure of schools was contested by many Malawians, with the Independent Schools Association of Malawi threatening to hold demonstrations if the government did not reopen the schools. 

Civil rights organisations argued that authorities must reopen schools on the basis that the alternative learning solutions that were being offered were impossible in homes without radio receivers and internet handsets. The schools were reopened in September 2020.

Despite these and other challenges, the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education exam results, as announced by the Ministry of Education in January 2021, showed that out of 277,007 candidates, 225,387 passed, representing an 81.37% pass rate, the highest in the past five years. The pass rate was an improvement from the previous year’s 77.46%.

In Eswatini, Minister of Education and Training Lady Howard-Mabuza announced on 8 February 2021 that last year’s Eswatini General Certificate in Secondary Education results were the second-best since 2011. The minister said the overall pass rate was 92.92%, an increase of 0.28% from the 2019 results. The minister said although schools were closed from March to July 2020, arrangements were made for teaching to continue through radio, television and print media.


If the official data and statistics are anything to go by, some countries in the region managed to withstand the effects of the pandemic on their education sectors. However, more in-depth research is needed to determine how this occurred. This may provide some lessons, because for many countries the effect has been devastating, with existing inequalities widening and education rights regressing. DM/MC


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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