Opinionista Nick Taylor 27 July 2020

School closures: A triumph of special interests over social justice

The reclosing of schools ignores science while pandering to politics and will again disadvantage the most vulnerable in society most harshly.

The decision to close the nation’s schools again is nothing short of a triumph of politics over science, of powerful special interests over social justice for the most vulnerable in our society. Quite apart from leaving close to a million young children unsupervised during the day, it deprives nine million of a large proportion of their daily nutrition. 

“Don’t worry,” says the Department of Basic Education, “children will collect their food from school.”

Really? And who will supervise them while teachers sit at home, for 120 days now and counting, unable to get even the most basic educational resources to the poorest children, while their middle-class counterparts enjoy daily instruction through the internet? 

Not only are the largest and poorest proportion of learners not learning anything during this time but, as Martin Gusaffson and Carol Nuga point out, they are actually regressing. 

“Don’t worry,” says the DBE, “schools must send books home with the children.” 

Really? The DBE said that before the first lockdown in March and it never happened in many schools serving the poor. And how many five- and six-year-old children will make it home with their food parcels intact? This generation is condemned, by their own government, to grow up physically and cognitively stunted. 

Almost as scandalous is the decision by the Eastern Cape Department of Education to lease R538-million worth of electronic goods, allegedly at vastly inflated prices, from Iqbal Survé, already under a cloud for alleged dodgy dealings with the Public Investment Corporation. The bare-faced impunity with which politically connected cabals siphon off the country’s resources is starkly illustrated as the department announced the decision within 24 hours of the president plaintively railing, once again, against Covid-19 corruption. 

Quite apart from the allegations of inflated prices and dodgy tender processes surrounding the department’s decision, there are five kinds of serious problems with this move. 

First up is a common South African problem which affects both the infrastructure and materials required for schooling: security. Here is a headline from this week’s press: Schools Handed Out Millions of Digital Devices Under Covid-19. Now, Thousands Are Missing. From the Eastern Cape perhaps? Wrong: the headline summarises the experiences of many school districts across the length and breadth of the world’s richest country, the US. The frustration resulting from these experiences is aptly captured by William Fritz, technology director for Sycamore Community Schools, Cincinnati, Ohio: “Buying devices is the easy part,” he said. “The hard part is the day-to-day management of the devices and keeping track of where they are.” 

In South Africa,devices are lost through both learner carelessness and criminality. For example, computers were top of the list of material stolen from 1,500 schools broken into during the lockdown. 

A second kind of difficulty involved in the use of electronic technology in delivering education relates to hardware malfunction and the inability of inexperienced users to use the machines for even the most elementary tasks. To deal with problems of this kind, even the best-resourced schools find it necessary to employ a full-time IT technician. Such difficulties are likely to be far more acutely experienced in low socio-economic homes. 

Third on the list of frustrations likely to be experienced by learners attempting to use the devices distributed by the Eastern Cape department are problems arising from low and intermittent connectivity and electricity supply. These difficulties are also likely to be exacerbated in rural areas.

These problems were vividly apparent in both the Gauteng On-Line project (quickly dubbed Gauteng Offline for obvious reasons) launched a decade or so ago, and the more recent Paperless Classroom initiative trumpeted by provincial Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi as the means to ensure equality of opportunity in Gauteng schools, but which sank ignominiously, without government acknowledgment, within two years of its launch in 2015. 

Fourth in the list of challenges posed by technology and schooling is the complexity – in the spheres of curriculum, communication and logistics – of mounting and maintaining an intensive programme over time. For example, in a longitudinal survey conducted in a representative sample of 240 school districts in the US, only 20% of schools were found to be providing rigorous instructional programmes remotely, and these were disproportionately serving more affluent communities.

But the trumping factor against the use of electronic devices in delivering education at school level is their ineffectiveness. Even if devices are bought at competitive prices, are managed efficiently and the problems of hardware malfunction and poor connectivity can be overcome,  the brute fact of the matter is that, the enduring hope that technology can be utilised to bypass ineffective teaching notwithstanding, it simply does not work. Here is the conclusion of a wide-ranging research study conducted in the 36 (high-income) member states of the prestigious Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): 

In the end technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching… Ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.

In the face of such unequivocal advice, the Eastern Cape department’s determination to splash half a billion rand on technology that is destined to fail is mind-boggling. The problem is compounded by the government’s inability to distribute to learners the most effective, cheapest and readily available tools for developing literacy and numeracy skills: the excellent workbooks in English First Additional Language, Home Language and Mathematics issued by the Department of Basic Education to primary school learners annually since 2011, and widely used in classrooms across the country. Best of all, these books are sitting in primary schools and will cost nothing to distribute. The same applies to the range of textbooks for key subjects sitting in high schools gathering dust. 

A government too illiterate to learn from the literature and too proud to admit its own mistakes, is doomed to repeat them, to the great detriment of taxpayers and the poor. DM

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