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South Africa’s basic education has failed and needs a...

Maverick Citizen

LEARNING OP-ED

South Africa’s basic education needs a major revision in 2022

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Government often thinks big but implements small. A teacher offers a few solutions to the myriad problems faced by an education sector bashed by Covid-19.

‘We’ve failed the year. We’re thinking of dropping out and getting internships instead,” a 16-year-old tells me.

“Internships?” I asked, puzzled.

“Oh, we can do car-washing and I can braid hair.”

This conversation is top-of-mind as I think about what to expect in 2022. I have empathy for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the myriad problems it has to solve. We cannot divorce the injustices our school communities face from the injustices of our broader socioeconomic and political context.

The DBE has several policies to remedy social evils. Programmes exist to improve infrastructure, social cohesion and school safety, and efforts are under way to increase learners’ access to transport, connectivity and learning resources.

But, as Ravi Naidoo, writing in Daily Maverick , pointed out, South Africa “has an overabundance of big-thinking policies and a critical shortage of implementation”. The DBE is no exception, and there is little indication this will change in 2022.

The DBE is busy, but it confuses busyness with effectiveness. The unprecedented amount of learning time many children lost during the pandemic (50% to 75%) is a glaring concern, yet, reading the DBE presentations to Parliament and scrolling through its social media feeds, one would think it was a minor setback that did not require immediate action. No clear communication from the department about how to catch up is forthcoming, beyond its own expressed confidence that its trimmed curriculum will help schools to get back on track in the next three years.

A lack of urgency about lost learning time sets the stage for what to expect in 2022. Unfortunately, by refusing to confront and prioritise the continued stagnation and atrophying of knowledge and skills in too many schools in 2021, we can be sure that the gap between exposed and fortified schools will continue to grow next year.

So, 2022 will probably be an easier year for resourced schools that have had time to refine their pandemic teaching methods, and their co-curricular activities can take on more pre-Covid normality. But many resourced schools will probably also continue to feel the pinch in terms of fee payments.

Exposed schools will have to face the huge learning backlog of the past two years. They are unlikely to have the support or know-how to deal with this effectively. Increased drop-out rates would not be a surprise, even if all schools returned to full capacity. The state matric exams are not a reliable gauge of education standards, so ignore the fanfare that will inevitably accompany the results.

A silver lining is that trade union federation Cosatu supports a mandatory vaccination policy, which might reduce school disruptions if vaccine-hesitant people decided to strike. At the time of writing teacher unions Sadtu and Naptosa still had to finalise their stances on such a policy.

It is possible to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots next year. The DBE can play a crucial role here.

First, it needs to prioritise the issue of lost learning time, and assume it will continue next year. Time is lost in official closures or rotations – and when classes are suspended because children and teachers have Covid.

Second, it needs to reimagine a differentiated, high-impact, innovative curriculum structure it can offer to exposed schools.

It doesn’t make sense for children to cover 25% of each subject’s content in 25% of the prescribed learning time. Some schools could suspend certain subjects and use those subject teachers to oversee academic support and enrichment. The DBE should reconsider how many subjects students need to take to matric, if only in the interim.

Third, a multisector approach is needed to conceptualise a streamlined school curriculum. Identify the core skills and foundational knowledge that different post-school institutions require and what bridging courses they can offer. Don’t burden all matrics with content only a minority will need. Matric exams should also be restructured to promote subject depth and skills development.

Fourth, see the potential for a lighter curriculum load that rotation and freed-up lessons can bring. Time outside the classroom should be seen as an opportunity to practise skills taught in in-person instruction.

The above requires high-quality, systematic, easy-to-understand physical (not just digital) resources for all subjects so that students can do a variety of exercises. Younger children need tactile learning-through-play activities. We need to upskill our kids by providing them with numerous and consistent opportunities to develop core skills.

Last, businesses and civil society can come together, with or without government support, and collaborate with teachers to conceptualise, coordinate and implement an informal grassroots national enrichment programme. Volunteers (or deployed teaching assistants) can offer daily sessions in a dedicated space for local children to do the work set by teachers, and adults can facilitate a simple enrichment programme – in a church marquee, a car park or an open field.

Time is running out: 66% of our youth are unemployed, yet teenagers with potential have more hope in looking for car-washing jobs than staying in school. A bleak 2022 awaits child education. Immediate, decisive and effective action is required. DM168

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher with experience in various education-related projects, including resource creation, sessional lecturing, and developing and delivering professional development programmes.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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