Opinionista Sara Black 30 April 2020

Covid-19 has given us the breathing space to fix our broken education system

Our schools and our education system are broken: what if the hiatus created by the Covid-19 pandemic is exactly the moment we have needed for the last 25 years to fix them? Why on Earth should we pass up an opportunity that might not roll around again for another 50+ years?

So often it happens that plum choices are only obvious in hindsight. We notice the best train is the one that just pulled out the station. What if Covid-19 was such a moment for our ailing education system?

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education what is – by almost all accounts – a badly thought through plan for reopening public schools. All of this is underpinned by the idea that cancelling the school year is just not an option to consider (as expressed in this more lyrical post and by others, such as Professor Jonathan Jansen).

“What’s the rush?” as a fellow activist put it. Indeed, what is the rush? We are behaving as if our hobbling economy is waiting with open arms to absorb our next batches of graduates, as if our universities are hollow and empty without next year’s matriculants, as if all our children start schooling on the dot at age seven (hint, they don’t) and schools have massive amounts of space for them (surprise, they don’t either). We’re behaving as if our schools were working before the pandemic, and we just need to get back to that “better place”. They weren’t. They really, really weren’t. With massive backlogs in learning, and basic skills handicapping most of our students from intermediate phase onwards, there’s plenty of redress work to be done. But with the way the DBE is handling this, you’d swear there was an urgency.

There isn’t. Not from Covid-19 anyway.

What if… what if… this is actually the moment we have needed for the last 25 years? We have, as Christie and others said in the mid-1990s, been trying to fix the ship while keeping it sailing. But now the ship can be docked: real repairs can be made. Why on Earth would we pass up that opportunity that might not roll around again for another 50+ years?

Unleashing government stimulus packages, and “new deals” like public investment the likes of which we haven’t seen before (although activists have been begging for it for decades), provides us with a moment to stop, take stock, fix things, acquire skills, mend what’s broken… and toss out what doesn’t work.

What if all our students who are struggling to read and write took the rest of the year off to learn to do so effectively? What could that look like? How could the reading clubs of the type championed by the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa) provide local multilingual literacy opportunities for children, the likes of which CAPS-aligned schooling cannot afford for lack of time? How could underemployed carers in the communities be the primary vanguard of such activities, while breadwinning parents go to work? How could academics and experts, freed from completing the university year, use their time to develop multilingual, high-quality, context-appropriate learning materials for universities and schools? How could such materials be distributed and training be done while keeping each other safe and not gathering in the types of numbers that threaten us all? How could we make learning exciting again?

Our schools are empty, and we have a massive unemployment problem. We also have a large number of young men who have the strength and under-utilised skills in basic construction work. What if we took the next eight months to build toilets that children do not fall into, fix those that are broken and leaking in the townships, install septic tanks, running taps, electricity provision and adequate security to keep schools safe? To build and enlarge classrooms (built too small by the apartheid government for people they deemed “unworthy” of proper schools) and created massive employment opportunities while doing so?

What if we gave our burnt-out teachers (who are so overworked they are numb) a chance to breathe? To re-evaluate their worn-out lesson plans that they’ve never had a chance to redesign and make exciting? To create those lesson materials they’ve always dreamed of but never had time to do? How could we put district officials to work to help them to do so constructively? Without the constant pressure of never-ending tests and exams? A chance to get off the hamster wheel that keeps getting faster each year but no one really knows why? 

We need to question if the structure of our curricula and assessments is fit for purpose, and if we could do better if only we were bold enough to dare dream it, and we need to take the chance to make that dream reality.

As for households with “high-performing” middle-class students, online connectivity and lacking these other issues (the vast minority); what if those kids, many of whom are on anti-anxiety and ADHD meds just so they can study day and night, got a chance to breathe? To learn something that’s not in the curriculum, something that they find interesting? Maybe take up a hobby? How about, those that can’t speak an indigenous language take a crash course in isiZulu? Or isiXhosa? Or Setswana? What if the well-off used their free time for the next eight months to help others? To really learn about the country they live in instead of occupying a bubble of privilege that insulates them from the suffering of everyone around them?

What if not needing to ferry school children to school gave our limping passenger rail an eight-month hiatus to fix tracks, replace rolling stock and become functional again?

What if we saw the money spent over the next eight months of education closures as an investment instead of as a loss? One for which we will recoup the benefit for years to come, if we are bold enough to look beyond December?

The State of Disaster has not only released funds in a way previously thought impossible, it has also overridden some of the flaws and petty bickering in distributed responsibilities for provision of basic services that fall between national and provincial government. Let’s face it: if you’re going to have Big Government for a little while, use it to get some useful stuff done. Yet another opportunity that we are letting fly by: education is constantly hampered by red tape between national and provincial realms of decision-making. Wide-scale investment in education was denounced in the period of transitioning as “unviable” in the 1990s. But what has been truly unviable is continuing to run a public education system desperate for investment in multiple forms as if it’s “business as usual”. What we need is a (Green) Education New Deal, with centralised planning and control to make it happen. Could this be our chance to try?

We have, for the first time in our fledgeling democracy, a moment to breathe. It’s almost akin to an unhealthy workaholic whose body is burnt out when they get The Diagnosis. They are forced to stop. To notice what is broken in their life. To re-evaluate what is important and prioritise it. And to heal. To make amends and get off the breakneck treadmill which has afforded them no time for anything except keeping on keeping on.

Let’s not keep on keeping on. What we have been “keeping on” with has been failing the vast majority of our children for too long. Social media has been awash with sceptics decrying the disproportionate response to Covid-19 compared to other more familiar social ills, but truthfully, the real tragedy is that the injustices with which we are too familiar have gone too long unaddressed.

This might be our chance to really try and fix things. We’d be fools not to take it. DM

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