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UCT Online High School parents angered by ‘arrogant and dismissive’ response to articles

UCT Online High School parents angered by ‘arrogant and dismissive’ response to articles
Illustrative image | Robert Paddock, CEO of Valenture Institute. (Photo: Supplied) | Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe | Gallo Images | Lefty Shivambu | Sydney Seshibedi | Gallo Images

Following the publication of Daily Maverick’s series of articles on UCT Online High School, the school issued a statement in response, calling our reporting ‘misleading, wrong in parts, and irresponsible’. Daily Maverick was contacted by several parents who said the school’s response was ‘arrogant and dismissive’, and that it had failed to account for the troubles faced by many at the school this year.

“It is blatantly untrue that we are a handful of unruly attention-seeking troublemakers … We are concerned for our children’s education.”

This was according to a parent of a Grade 8 learner in Gauteng, at UCT Online High School (UCTOHS), who contacted Daily Maverick this past week, after the initial publication of our articles on the online school. 

Read our entire coverage of the UCT Online High School: 

“These are the experiences of way more than a handful of parents,” she said. The parent spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity for fear of being victimised.

Since the publication of Daily Maverick’s articles on UCTOHS, we have received emails from a number of guardians and students. Among the concerns and criticism levelled at the school, Daily Maverick did, however, receive two emails from both a guardian and a learner who spoke positively about their experiences at the school.

“I am a Grade 11 student with UCTOHS and I’ve thrived this year. Also because I’ve had the online learning experience during the original lockdown… The support I received this year was incredible and I’m forever grateful. Academically, I excelled,” said the learner who wished to remain anonymous.

Following the publication of Daily Maverick’s series of articles on UCTOHS, the school issued a statement in response, calling our reporting “misleading, wrong in parts, and irresponsible.”

Daily Maverick was contacted by several parents who wanted to express their feelings towards the school’s response, accusing it of being “arrogant and dismissive”, and failing to account for the troubles faced by many at the school this year. 

Among the parents that Daily Maverick spoke to, many took aim at the school’s decision to quote someone who said the number of unhappy parents were “nothing more than a small inconsequential attention-seeking group of upstarts that regularly make fools of themselves in the parent groups”. The majority of the parents who spoke to Daily Maverick did so on condition of anonymity, for fear of being lambasted for speaking out, in light of this comment.

“For [Valenture Institute CEO, Robert Paddock] to come out and say such lies is a problem — especially, when we as parents feel like we are being bullied into silence,” said another guardian of a Grade 8 learner in Gauteng who wished to remain anonymous.

“We are fighting for the future of our children. We are not trying to pull the school down, we just want the school to take accountability and be transparent, and make sure that the future of our children is secure,” said the parent of a Grade 8 pupil in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the words of one parent: “I think they need to be held accountable. There needs to be some form of accountability on this.”

***

On Thursday, 6 October 2022, a letter written by and on behalf of the guardians of Grade 8 learners in Gauteng was sent to UCT Online High School, laying out an extensive list of issues encountered by children and guardians, which they felt, had been “completely unaddressed or not addressed satisfactorily” by the school administration.

The eight-page letter, recently obtained by Daily Maverick, was signed by at least 67 Grade 8 parents — some of whom also have children in other grades at the school. Daily Maverick is aware of other guardians who shared the same concerns and agreed with the content of the letter, but who did not wish to sign their names for fear of being victimised.

“To say that we are unhappy with UCTOHS and Valenture is putting it extremely mildly,” the guardians wrote.

“Although this letter is endorsed by most Grade 8 learner guardians, these issues are experienced by children from Grade 8 to Grade 11,” they continued.

Daily Maverick has included the letter to the school below, but has blurred the names of the signatories upon request.

The letter was addressed to the UCTOHS Guardians’ Forum, the school’s former director and principal, Yandiswa Xhakaza, deputy principal Sipho Mpisane, UCTOHS and Valenture Institute.

Xhakaza’s resignation as principal was publicly announced on 1 December 2022, and Banele Lukhele has been appointed as the school’s executive head and chief academic officer. Lukhele was previously UCTOHS’ director of faculty.

“We write this letter as a last-ditch attempt to get acceptable responses, some action, and most importantly, some sense of accountability from UCTOHS and Valenture before we go to the national media in the form of an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng and the UCT Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe,” the guardians wrote.

“Please rest assured that we will be attaching this letter, other communication from various guardians, children’s reports (with names redacted), UCTOHS and Valenture emails and responses (and so-called guardians meetings), Hello Peter complaints, two Facebook polls on the UCTOHS Guardians Facebook page, Facebook complaints and finally, WhatsApp chats from various Guardian groups (Grades 8 to 11) as supporting documentation to give credence to our complaints.”

“We think that you will find that — with the preponderance of information as mentioned above that we will be providing the media with — UCTOHS, UCT and Valenture will not have the opportunities they have had thus far to ignore the complaints about admin, finance and most importantly academic issues, rug-sweep or fob us off with corporate communication speak and hide behind emails that say nothing at all,” they continued.

Although this letter was written by a collective of Grade 8 guardians in Gauteng, its contents echoed other guardians’ experiences and complaints described in dozens of interviews with Daily Maverick. 

In the letter, the guardians cited key issues with communication; technical problems; children falling behind; poor learner performance; delayed report cards; and inconsistent marking — all of which Daily Maverick heard during interviews with other parents, and later detailed in our reporting. And, in interviews with Daily Maverick conducted over the past months, several teachers supported that among the complaints they had received from guardians, these concerns were the ones heard most often. 

In the letter, the guardians requested that, in its response, the school give “direct answers” to many of their questions. Among the questions posed by the guardians in the letter is: 

Who does the marking of

  1. The assignments / Mastery Checks? Please note this requires a direct answer.
  2. The projects? Please note this requires a direct answer.
  3. The cycle tests? Please note this requires a direct answer.
  4. The exams? Please note this requires a direct answer.

A response from UCT Online High School’s deputy principal, Sipho Mpisane, to this letter on 14 October 2022, which Daily Maverick has seen, indicates that the school has long been aware that these issues were not coming from a handful of disgruntled parents, as claimed in its response to Daily Maverick. 

Speaking to Daily Maverick, three Gauteng parents who wished to remain anonymous, described the deputy principal’s response to their letter as “superficial and insubstantial”. In responding to their question on marking, Mpisane had indicated that the school had contracted the services of a “specialist provider” to conduct the grading of assessments, but omitted that the third-party service provider was Teach Me 2.

Daily Maverick asked UCTOHS why it did not disclose this information to guardians, when they were demanding a direct answer to this question. In a response to our question on Friday, 16 December 2022, UCTOHS said: “[We] do not outsource our responsibilities for grading. Rather, we have a partnership with Teach Me 2 that enables us to grade at scale and all five phases of our grading system are structured around exhaustive moderation by our teachers, meeting all the requirements of our independent accreditor.”

UCTOHS’ claims that its marking is not outsourced, are untrue. Teach Me 2 COO Daniel van Zuydam confirmed to Daily Maverick that Teach Me 2 was a “contracted third-party service provider” until the end of the year, at which point UCTOHS will take over management of marking so that it can implement stronger quality controls.

***

Daily Maverick is aware of many UCT Online High School guardians in provinces including KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Mpumalanga who experienced the same issues and shared the same concerns as those detailed in this letter. The accusations contained in the letter are supported by multiple complaints Daily Maverick has seen from guardians who have posted on a private UCTOHS Guardian Facebook group, and the public review platform, Hello Peter.

Mushirah De La Porte, admin for the Grade 8 Guardian Cape Town WhatsApp group, remembers the moment she realised she was not alone in the troubles she was experiencing at the school. Her son was in Grade 8 at UCTOHS this year, but she has since removed him from the school.

“I came across a [Facebook] post where a parent was saying that they didn’t understand how children who had never failed a term in primary school, were failing… every subject, and not just by a little bit, but by a lot.”

“I was in that boat, and I realised [I was] not alone when I looked at the comments. And it hit alarm bells because I thought, it couldn’t be so many parents with the same story. Clearly something’s not right,” she recalled in a recent interview with Daily Maverick.

After seeing this Facebook post from a guardian, De La Porte followed up with her own post in August; asking WhatsApp group admins for all grades and regions to contact her to discuss the term mark percentage.

“I was bombarded by parents from Grade 8 to 11, all regions — Cape Town, Johannesburg, [Gqeberha], all over — who sent me their stories about their children’s low grades and the inconsistencies in grading after requesting a remark,” she said. When asked by Daily Maverick to specify the number of parents who contacted her with their concerns, De La Porte responded: “Over 200 to 300 at least — if not more.”

“It wasn’t just Grade 8, or only Cape Town. I thought: How are multiple grades and regions having the same issues; [the] same experiences? Clearly the children are not the problem.”

Additionally, Daily Maverick has been reliably informed from an inside source that at least 1,000 guardians — across Grades 8 to 11 — have raised complaints this year either on the Guardian Facebook page, Guardian WhatsApp groups or in the form of formal complaints and/or a letter. 

According to the source — questions from despondent guardians seeking clarity from the school were an almost daily occurrence. 

When Daily Maverick asked UCTOHS why it had claimed that the concerns of guardians detailed in our reporting were the views of a “small number of parents and guardians”, the school responded: “[We] must stress that there are more than 8,000 guardians in our school community and the great majority are positive about their children’s learning experience over our first year, and the commitment to developing a viable, quality alternative to traditional schooling. Secondly, we have responded to every concern logged by guardians via our complaints channel, including the concerns of the four Grade 8 guardians who provided the basis for your previous reporting.”

UCTOHS’ claim that our previous reporting was based on the concerns of four Grade 8 guardians is untrue. We have a “basis” for every assertion made in the articles, which are not founded on interviews with just four guardians, but several staff members and guardians, and are also supported in posts we have seen on social media and Hello Peter, and revealed in internal documents obtained by Daily Maverick. 

Said one guardian: “For every parent who is brave enough to complain, how many more are experiencing the same issues but don’t want to feel as though they’re causing trouble and would rather keep their heads down?” DM

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