Education storm bodes ill for South African schoolchildren

Education storm bodes ill for South African schoolchildren
Pupils at Hoërskool Menlopark in Pretoria begin their final exams on 31 October 2022. (Photo: Deaan Vivier / Gallo Images)

We need to rediscover the ethical and human dimensions of learning, yet schools are becoming less focused on balance, with the child in the centre, and are taking a more market-based approach.

Deciphering the patterns of the tea leaves in the education cup is difficult. The once relatively stable economy is more unstable than ever and even the good infrastructure in some schools is deteriorating. There are still high-level skills needs and shortages, and unemployment among 18- to 30-year-olds is alarmingly high.

Poverty levels are up, and South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, making the need for food support in schools an ongoing urgent need. Thousands of people continue to move to the bigger cities looking for a better life, and place incredible pressure on schools and other urban structures. Covid-19 has disrupted economies and increased unemployment, with reports of 600,000 job losses in Gauteng alone.

A swirl in tea leaves shows that the national competition for resources in social welfare, health and education is intense. This means that the large disparities in the quality of basic education and significant education backlogs will not easily be addressed.

The suspension of face-to-face teaching in schools during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic still has a significant impact on students’ learning. So far, data in the Netherlands, for example, doesn’t look good considering it only had an eight-week lockdown.

This is a country with highly equitable school funding and the world’s highest rate of broadband access.

Research shows the impact is equivalent to one-fifth of a school year, the same period that schools were closed. Learning losses are up to 60% larger among students from less-educated homes, confirming worries about the uneven toll of the pandemic on children and families. These findings imply that students made little or no progress while learning from home.

In South Africa, we lost 1.3 years of learning, and new assessments show that children in Grade 4 in 2021 knew less than children in Grade 3 in 2018.

The pattern of the mutating Covid virus in the cup is prominent. Covid has reminded us that the world has become ‘flatter’ because of the ICT revolution, with knowledge freely available for those able to access the internet. Unfortunately, open education resources are not necessarily the public good they claim to be, but more a tool to increase the visibility of the institutions themselves. There is some hope in blended modes of teaching, and in building strategic networks. But this too will be overshadowed by the increasing competitiveness in the knowledge economy and networking society.

Mental health issues created by Covid and lockdowns also loom large. Fear, worry, stress and isolation caused by so much uncertainty affect children’s behaviour. There has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety, according to the World Health Organization, and it says this is just the tip of the iceberg. The worry in our country is that most young people will be unable to access face-to-face help.

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Soothsayer Alex Beard in his Natural Born Learners argues that we should be upgrading ourselves, not our technology: the new scientific understanding of brain deve­lopment in the early years of life should inspire us to rethink how we approach learning and education. Beard argues that we need to regain trust in the unparalleled human capacity to learn, rather than blindly relying on technology.

The shift in responsibility of early childhood education to the Department of Basic Education will hopefully provide more support in this sector.

The research tea leaves show that the experience during early childhood shapes the architecture of the developing brain and that children who are well nourished and nurtured in their earliest years are more likely to do much better at school, and that this sets children up for greater success. These leaves are compelling. We have no choice but to invest massively into early childhood programmes now.

Also on the policy front, the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill proposes several changes to the South African Schools Act, including the transfer of control to the education department in determining a school’s language policy, much more say in governance and curriculum reform.

Home schooling will also be more closely scrutinised, and regulations about corporal punishment and initiation practices will be strengthened.

Recent cheating in matric exams reminds us that high-stakes assessment has become the tail that wags the dog. Exams are an important way of measuring students’ progress and of holding schools to account, but they are just too powerful. The single-­minded focus on matric results undermines any chance of a broad and balanced education, and too many young people are still labelled as failures.

You don’t have to consult the tea leaves to know that there are all sorts of perverse happenings in a system driven by exam results. Some schools are under such pressure to maintain excellent results that they quietly push out students who are going to do badly even though they are often the most vulnerable. A lot of schools also sideline activities such as sport, which are crucial for children’s health and wellbeing.

Beard says that we need to rediscover the ethical and human dimensions of learning. But to his dismay, schools are increasingly taking a market-based approach, focusing on efficiency and competition. He calls for a radical shift in education systems, replacing competition with cooperation and focusing greater attention on wellbeing and social and emotional development.

Beard is hopeful and believes that education is “the silver bullet”. His reading of the tea leaves identifies nine essentials to human learning: learn forever, think critically, get creative, develop character, start early, grow cooperation, practise teaching, use technology wisely, and understand that humans are the system and that systems are not inanimate – systems serve humans; humans do not serve systems.

A cold teapot and a dying computer battery remind me that living for several days already without any electricity is a reality we must contend with. The aftereffect of a local superstorm says that global warming and climate change are real, and that environmental education must be central to any secret curriculum reforms currently under way. DM168

Mark Potterton is principal of Sacred Heart Primary and Pre-Primary School

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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