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Education system caught in a Catch-22 — learners are damned if they return to school, and damned if they don’t


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

With 50 to 60 learners in a class, physical distancing becomes impossible. The Delta variant is extremely infectious. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga’s decision to decrease the physical distance to one metre is an obscure attempt to disguise the government’s failure rather than address the needs of schools.

I have previously written that learners must return to school because they are experiencing learning losses when they are away from school, which in the long run will disadvantage them for further education. This argument is backed up by the increasing dropout rate. Before the pandemic, this number was already alarmingly high. Over the past 16 months, this figure has increased from 250,000 to more than 750,000, mostly in areas where joblessness and poverty play a big role.

All primary school learners were to have returned to school at the beginning of this week. However, it depends on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the president placed us back on Level 4 and extended the school holiday it was in the hope that we would by now have passed the third wave. This did not happen. The Western Cape has now surpassed Gauteng with the most infections per day. Districts which have been declared hotspots, like my hometown Drakenstein, are thus problematic.

A survey by the Western Cape Education Department shows that only 328 primary schools (out of 1,100) are ready to welcome back all learners. I have been pleading for a long time that the government must do something about South Africa’s overcrowded schools. This has fallen on deaf ears. I place the blame on the government, which has failed to build enough schools over the past 27 years. With the exception of Naptosa, I did not get much support from teachers’ unions either.

Schools that cannot accommodate all learners have the choice to apply to the provincial minister. Why? Does Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga not know that the schools are overcrowded? I know it, the unions know it, and so do Gift of the Givers. This organisation is currently building classrooms all over, while the minister — whose task it really is — makes it sound as if South Africa is a First World country. With 50 to 60 learners in a class, physical distancing becomes impossible. The Delta variant is extremely infectious. Her decision to decrease the physical distance to one metre is an obscure attempt to disguise the government’s failure.

Probably a differentiated strategy should be followed. Primary schools must teach learners to read and write. Thus, it would have been a better option if everyone in the foundation phase were sent back first, while the rest still rotate. There is also an argument to be made that matrics must return full time.

It is good news that 80% of all teachers have already received the vaccine. However, it is a pity that some teachers are still opposed to vaccination. Not only are they a danger to themselves, their colleagues and the children, but it means that we will reach herd immunity much later. And herd immunity is actually our only solution, given that the country is currently bankrupt and cannot build schools or even supply online facilities. Medical aids like Discovery have already spoken out. The last word on this matter has not yet been spoken.

It is in everyone’s interest that all children return to school. However, we find ourselves in a Catch-22. Sad as it may be, it is not possible right now. More children will thus drop out and some will never achieve a qualification or get a job.

The vicious cycle of unequal education will continue. Another lost generation awaits us. DM


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