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South Africa, leave them kids alone: Our pupils will be fine, despite the Covid-19 school disruptions

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Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

There is not one shred of evidence, or even research undertaken, that supports the view that children should attend school for five hours a day, for about 200 days a year. This amounts to 1,000 hours a year. Our educational system has been stuck in a rut (and in the case of South Africa, a pothole) for over a century.

I was listening to 702 radio the other day, where a professor from Stellenbosch University was chatting to talk show host Azania Mosaka about Covid-19 and the impact it was having on children in schools, in terms of not completing the syllabus this year. For most children, it will be their second year during the pandemic. Parents and teachers are becoming increasingly distressed about this state of affairs. 

My advice to all those anxious people is that they should not worry. I’m sure many parents, and teachers, will disagree with these sentiments. However, I really hope this will promote discussion and discourse among school communities. 

The fact is, there is not one shred of evidence, or even research undertaken, that supports the view that children should attend school for five hours a day, for about 200 days a year. This amounts to 1,000 hours a year. Our educational system has been stuck in a rut (and in the case of South Africa, a pothole) for over a century.

Moreover, there is no data to support the notion that children should attend schools for 12 years. This places parents, teachers and children under huge stress to attend a myriad functions that constitute an efficiently managed school, rather than an effectively managed school. Schools need to do less, to override an already burdened system. We don’t want schools to produce, “well-rounded” children but rather intelligent, fit “holistic” children.

To do this does not mean that schools have to find more time, but rather less time. Education needs to be reinvented. To add more wood to the fire, these young adults then attend university, the purpose being to eventually graduate with a degree to get a job in the world of work (even if they are unsure of what they want to do in their future). This equates to 16 years of education which, I believe, is severely flawed for many reasons (which I would rather not expand on at this stage), except for the fact that educational change is based on the false assumption that schools should operate according to strict time frames.

Be that as it may, no one seems to be aware of, or question, the validity of this assumption. After all, why do children start school at about six years and finally finish university at about the age of 24? That’s nearly a quarter of a century.

There is limited research on the starting ages of children attending school, which is mainly based on hearsay. There is no doubt that this would be a perfect time to investigate the underpinnings, purpose and nature of schooling. The time has come for educational change and what better time than now? The Covid pandemic is not going away, but seems to be recruiting for a third invasion. Last time around, we thought we were well prepared. We were not. Let’s not repeat our errors of the past. 

It is going to be most interesting to study the matric marks this year and last year to see how they compare with the marks from 2019. If I were a gambling man, I would put my money on the matric Class of 2020 — even though they were burdened with the Covid-19 pandemic and all its nuances, placing them under more stress than any other matric year in the history of this exam. 

However, the 2020 matric exams are now complete and the 2021 exams are yet to happen. School communities should not panic, because based on “lack of evidence” to the contrary, our future matriculants will complete this year with flying colours. I really hope that the 2020 matric results can also be used to research the premise that, “less” is better than “more”. Serious consideration must be given to making substantial educational changes in all facets of the curriculum. 

I would like to pay tribute to the matrics of 2020 who completed the academic year, despite the pandemic. I take my hat off to all of you.  

I leave all our school communities with this message, from the blog of Debbie Trogdon, principal of Newport Middle School in North Carolina in the US. I hope it lifts the stress for all sectors of the school communities: 

“To all those parents trying desperately to do learning at home, I had a parent tell me this week: ‘I missed four years of school in Bosnia during the war. Four whole years with a war happening. I came to Australia at the age of 13, no English and no schooling since I was eight. I’m 33 and have a university degree and a very good career. The kids will be fine.’”

“Don’t sweat it. Every kid in the world is in the same boat. They aren’t missing out, they aren’t in a war zone.

“Chill. Their teachers are doing the best they can. You are doing the best you can. They are children. What they want is to feel safe and loved.” DM

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  • A hugely unconventional, enormously challenging and philosophical take on the dogma surrounding ‘education’. Uplifting and inspiring in dire times !

  • I am a recently retired teacher. My kids went to ‘Model C’ schools, and I taught at township or ‘Coloured’/community schools my whole career. So I have some experience of education in South Africa. I agree with many of the opinions expressed in the article – BUT the reality is that for so many of our learners, their time at school provides them with the reassurance of structure, social contact, stimulation and a sense of continuity and purpose. Not to mention the only meal they may get in the day. Many of them are in neglectful and/or abusive homes, or homes in which parent(s) or caregivers work extremely long hours and barely see their kids. I worry that many of our children may feel cast adrift and forgotten when schooling time is reduced and uncertain. Schools are not only about academics.

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