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LESSONS FOR A NEW YEAR OP-ED

After Covid, South African education is at a crossroads as we enter 2023

After Covid, South African education is at a crossroads as we enter 2023
Illustrative image | Sources: Rawpixel | Leila Dougan | Getty Images

Recovering from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic made 2022 a watershed year for basic education. Now this vital sector faces another set of challenges, both political and social. Michael le Cordeur surveys the landscape, identifies the positive and negative aspects and considers how things can be improved.

That we were able to stabilise the school project after the Covid pandemic was the best news of 2022. Contentious issues of class rotation came to an end and pupils could again receive tuition from teachers daily. Three years of lying around at home sounded like fun, initially, but it did not remain enjoyable for long. Routine is important for child development.

The lack of extracurricular activities was the root of much evil. Fortunately, sport and culture programmes were resumed and brought peace to pupils and classrooms. The theory of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) that all cognitive development is the result of social interaction with others (read “teachers and friends”) was confirmed. No one can deny the role of teachers in effective tuition.

Covid did, however, introduce us to other possibilities for how learning and teaching can take place. Schools had to think out of the box to survive. This led to exciting, innovative projects. E-learning programmes mushroomed and teachers had to adapt to the new normal.

The Bela Bill

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has tabled the proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Act (Bela). This bill has led to great unhappiness due to an amendment to school admission policy.

We must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are many other positive aspects to the Bela Bill. Space constraints do not allow me to go into them. Suffice it to say that by only focusing on one aspect of the bill we run the risk of overlooking the good ones – of which there are 18.

I will briefly discuss two examples.

A great problem in South Africa is the absence of preschool education or early childhood development (ECD). The new legislation makes Grade R compulsory. It sometimes takes a year before children are school-ready. Therefore, it is a step forward which will make the lives of foundation-phase teachers considerably easier.

Read more in Daily Maverick:All hail to the matric class of 2022 – the odds were against you, but you overcame

With so many pupils having been left behind by the pandemic, it is gratifying that the new legislation allows for the prosecution of those who prevent children from attending school.

With elections around the corner, the next two years will be a turbulent political period. Experience has taught us political instability can have an influence on schools. School governing bodies and education authorities must guard against the disruption of the school programme. Too many learners’ education was sacrificed in the past in support of political agendas. Those days are over. A teacher’s place is in the classroom or on the sports field.

I would like to look at two aspects of concern: limitation of the powers of school governing bodies regarding the determination of the school language and the admission policy of the school.

If a governing body must submit its policy to a provincial head of education in line with the new legislation, it is a violation of democratic rights. It discourages parental involvement, whereas the pandemic encouraged parents to get involved at schools.

The DBE argues that any change to a school’s language and admission policy will only take place “after negotiation with the school governing body”. According to the DBE, all official languages will enjoy equal rights and schools will not be able to use language as a basis for discrimination.

I can see where the government is coming from. The Rivonia Primary court case is still fresh in our minds. The solution possibly lies in the ruling of the judge of the Constitutional Court when he said school communities should cooperate in good faith, in a process where mutual trust and respect are building blocks for a healthy school community.

Mental health

I am concerned about the emotional wellness of teachers. The human factor of Covid has been terribly underrated. Teachers are under immense pressure to catch up on the backlog while they themselves are not healthy. The situation is exacerbated by the deterioration of discipline due to the absence of a healthy routine with children at home too long, most without parental supervision. With the return to school, it was noticeable that pupils’ behaviour had deteriorated. Absenteeism was higher than ever, probably due to the rotation system.

Corporal punishment and pregnancy

Pupils had forgotten how to address each other and teachers respectfully. Tempers flared and this led to fighting in school grounds and in classrooms which, in turn, frustrated teachers. Corporal punishment is flaring up. Some of my students mentioned, after their practice teaching, how upset they were that corporal punishment was being applied, even in the foundation phase. This requires urgent intervention.

The most disturbing aspect of the pandemic period is the 91,000 teen pregnancies. Most of the mothers are girls between 10 and 14 years old; too young to give consent to sex. It amounts to statutory rape – in a country where 115 women are raped daily.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Student bursaries are the lifeblood of higher education, but the problems are legion

It creates endless social problems: 91,000 girls (themselves still children) must join queues at post offices; 91,000 babies might suffer malnutrition because the social grant will be spent on things other than baby food by the baby’s mother and her boyfriend; 91,000 social grants from the pockets of long-suffering taxpayers places further pressure on Treasury; 91,000 children grow up in poverty and might never see the inside of a school.

Almost every day I am asked when our pupils will catch up on the backlog caused by the pandemic – as if it is an examination to be written and passed. The importance of the recovery programme is underestimated by many. The shortage of classrooms, toilets and schools has not disappeared and will stand in the way of effective learning and teaching. It will require hard work and much patience. There are no shortcuts.


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The renewed emphasis on ECD is music to my teaching ears, but legislation alone is not enough. Grade R children are dropped at schools without the required infrastructure being provided. Bear in mind that Grade R children require specially equipped classrooms with their own bathrooms, toilets and playgrounds to ensure their safety.

South Africa stands at a crossroads. To bridge it, we require a school curriculum which addresses the inequalities of the past and at the same time equips learners with values, knowledge and skills for the 21st century.

Read more in Daily Maverick:The Covid crisis taught us vital lessons about education – don’t let this crisis go to waste

The current Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement no longer has relevance. It is too prescriptive and deprives teachers of their professional initiative, which kills their passion.

Valuable tuition time is lost to extended assessments. As we are moving forward, facts and examinations will become less important. Children can find facts on the internet. Instead of studying long hours to commit facts to memory, the curriculum must be renewed so that they can learn to think for themselves.

A curriculum that works

For 12 years, children struggle to complete their school careers, only to fall into the economic abyss and become part of the growing youth unemployment statistics. A new curriculum is required that will create job opportunities which will be in demand in future: think alternative energy installers (solar and wind), agriculturists (food security), software analysts and data analysts.

When I see how South Africa and its economic growth are held hostage by Eskom, I ask myself why schools do not yet offer subjects like robotics, technical science and agriculture in their curriculums.

Not only will that prepare our young people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but it will also combat unemployment. DM168

Professor Le Cordeur is vice-dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University. His latest book, Covid: Crisis and Opportunities for Education, was recently published by Naledi.

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

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