The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has little capacity to ensure that quality education takes place in an average school year. This is for a multitude of reasons ranging from historical legacies to poor implementation. The department needs to face up to its limitations: it’s not going to improve teacher quality this year, nor will all our children get access to online learning (which I don’t believe is the solution in our context anyway).
But, through its curriculum and assessment policies, it does have the power and the capacity to create a more flexible educational environment that is conducive to meaningful learning during Covid-19.
The official curriculum and assessment policies are a burden. Historically, when onerous assessments like Grade 9 portfolios or annual national assessments were scrapped, or exam formats changed, the school year became more flexible and more learning could take place. And any teacher who has lightened the curriculum load by skipping over a section or two knows that this improves the quality of learning even more. The DBE cannot guarantee enough teachers or resources, but it can erode some of the challenges that Covid-19 has exacerbated in our crisis-ridden education system by removing the obstacles and pressures created by the current curriculum. This will be a game changer.
Curriculum decisions are highly contested and fraught with competing ideological beliefs about education: what it looks like, why we have it and how we should assess it. Muddy the ideology with mundane practical realities, and the final result will hardly ever leave everyone satisfied. Careful thought needs to be given to the delicate balance between topic breadth and depth, which, in turn, determines the environment in which subject-specific skills and knowledge are developed.
A sensitive area of discussion is determining which topics are essential and which carry secondary importance. From the DBE’s response to calls for curriculum trimming last year, it would appear that the DBE really struggled with this exercise.
I get it. It’s difficult to scrap content. We become attached and what we decide to keep and what we decide to delete is an ideological statement that someone will complain about. But the department is disadvantaging our weakest and most exposed schools with its argument that all content is essential.
The official school curriculum is too ambitious. Last year I chatted to a teacher who was dismayed at how much content he had to cover in the South African history curriculum. Content and themes that were granted a whole term in a different education system were given a week or two in our context. Absurdly, while our children only had a fraction of the time allotted for the same topic, they were still expected to show evidence of a similar standard of deep-level engagement. To combat an unrealistic curriculum, functional or fortified schools (to use Sara Black’s terminology) and high-functioning teachers make difficult curriculum decisions at the start of every academic year.
Our curriculum is crammed to bursting, and in certain subjects entire prescribed sections are ignored or covered briefly so that the teacher can carve enough space for her students to learn and develop crucial skills and higher-level thinking. These teachers know what is reasonable to cover in a year and plan accordingly. As the year throws curveballs, the curriculum and assessments are reworked on an ongoing basis. Fortified schools tend to support their teachers in these decisions.
Many low-functioning or exposed schools and teachers are out of their depth and do not have the freedom, courage or skills to make the same strategic curriculum decisions. Two extreme approaches tend to be taken. Either teachers rush through the topics and “teach” the entire year’s work with weeks to spare, or teachers start with the first page in the textbook and plough through each topic, but often do not finish, which has a knock-on effect for the next grade, and the next. Excessively early curriculum completion means very little content or skills are mastered across the board. An unplanned incomplete curriculum might mean that the initial topics are mastered, but it will definitely mean that children will miss out on indispensable content covered later in the year.
Attempts have been made to improve the rate of curriculum completion in our schools, but they do not address the problem of an unrealistic curriculum. I’ve also experienced teachers becoming more loyal to a schedule than to effective education. I observed a maths teacher who followed a set of daily lesson plans that was provided by the provincial education department. He delivered three-quarters of his lesson when the bell rang. I assumed he would finish the lesson the next day. Imagine my confusion when he started a completely new topic. When I quizzed him about the deserted concept, he replied that he had to stick to the schedule or he wouldn’t finish everything he needed to cover for the year.
So, under pre-Covid-19 conditions our curriculum and assessment policies actively obstructed meaningful learning. High-functioning teachers and fortified schools worked around it while exposed schools were bogged down or threw information at the kids and hoped it would stick. Come 2020 and the school year was upended while the DBE debated for weeks about what to do to “save the school year”. It finally decided to trim the curriculum for the lower grades with the belief that everything would be back to normal in 2021. The trimmed sections could be caught up in 2021 because apparently Covid-19 was only going to be a problem until 31 December 2020.
As expected, a second wave arrived. Michael le Cordeur has pointed out that schools have already been hit hard with budget cuts and the constraints of Covid-19 safety regulations. Add teacher illness or deaths, and future lockdowns, and our average child has little hope of progressing significantly in their educational journey this year.
I am imploring the DBE to face reality and to plan for reality. Plan for a shortened school year and assume, until the pandemic is really behind us, that future years will also be shortened and rocky. Be bold. Be courageous. Allow for greater flexibility, creativity and innovation with assessments. Identify and prioritise the most essential information and skills, and officially wave goodbye to large chunks of content, including matric content.
Believe that less can be more.
Meet with teachers from a range of schools and subjects and consult them about what they can reasonably cover and what they believe needs to be prioritised. Work with academics in tertiary institutions and figure out which skills are the most essential and need the most attention. Work with the institutions to provide support to students who might need a bridging course at the start of the university year.
It’s hard getting rid of content, especially if one loves a subject and one sees the value in every topic or section. But we are in an even deeper crisis than we were last year. Disruptions and uncertainty beckon. Before Covid-19 our children were not learning everything that was prescribed. The DBE can either be proactive and determine what content we teach and what we drop, or it can become a victim of inaction and allow the caprices of the pandemic to dictate what educational gaps the majority of our children have. Let’s stop being victims and take control. Minister Motshekga, again, I implore you, be a champion for our children. DM