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    The widening gap in education

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    The covid-19 pandemic has amplified the widening gap in basic education acquisition in South Africa. Last year I indicated in one of my Facebook posts that the greatest challenge of education during the covid era is the existing inequality among South Africans and the understaffing in schools. These two factors continue to create challenges which render all the daily spinning of education officials irrelevant and unproductive. Let me show you how the two factors continue to pose a challenge to the teaching and learning:

     

    • INEQUALITIES: There are two classes of schools in South Africa, namely the fee-paying and none fee-paying schools. The fee-paying schools consist of the independent and former model C schools are of course autonomous to a large extent, since they are way better resourced. So the children of the affluent (and the working class) in this unequal society are in these schools which are significantly different to the typically under resourced and overcrowded township and village schools which are also none fee-paying. These are schools in which you find the majority of the children whose whole household income is reliant on social grants. As indicated by the General Household Survey 2018, the social grants remain the second most important source of income in South Africa, were found to be the main source of income for 19.9% of households nationally. Many of these households experience food shortages which has necessitated feeding schemes in these none fee-paying schools.

     

    As lockdown hit us in 2020, all children lost out on education. However, whereas children from the independent and former model C schools continued to learn through virtual means as early as April, children from none fee-paying schools were left in the cold. From April to December children from none fee-paying schools were only taught for an equivalent of a month as the school program was disrupted time and again and learners attended school one week a month.

     

    This week, the school management teams and teachers have returned to schools to prepare themselves for the eventual return of the learners to the schools. While there is still some two weeks before the township learners are received back to the schools, the independent and former model C school learners have started with a two week online time table. By the time the learners get back to the class on the 15th of February as announced, their counterparts would have completed at least a two week part of the syllabus which widens the already big gap between these two groups.  This gap may not be easy to close considering the limited resources for most of the township schools.

     

    There is no doubt that the social distancing regulation affects learners of these two groups differently. Whereas independent schools and former model C schools generally have a small teacher-learner ratio, township and village schools have huge numbers of learners such that their normal teacher-learner ratio with some classes go as far as 1:50/1:60. Independent schools and former model C schools therefore manage to continue with their teaching and learning as they can easily maintain social distance because of their reasonable numbers whereas for none fee-paying schools with big numbers of learners, this may mean learning for one week per month for individual learners as was the case in 2020.

     

    • UNDERSTAFFING: Some schools have suffered loss of teachers from covid-19 related complications during school recess. These deaths, compounded by the sizable number of teachers with comorbidities, leave many schools understaffed, thereby compromising the already strained teaching and learning due to social distancing. As schools reopen, there are additional teachers who will not return due to old age and their pre-existing health conditions further reducing the number of available teachers and adding to the staffing challenges of the schools.  The department of education has appointed the teacher assistants but since they cannot teach the classes because of their unqualified status, the staffing challenges of schools remain. Even though the vaccine has been received, it may take a while before the teachers receive their vaccination to give the department confidence to get the schools functioning at maximum capacity. How do schools with such limited resources catch up and close this gap that is clearly widening with every day of teaching and learning? It is highly impossible to close this gap.

    It is a painful situation to see the already marginalized being further thrown into the pit of uncertainty when they should have been receiving maximum attention. Some of these learners come from the informal settlements and townships where the cost of data is a huge challenge. Some of these learners do not even have smartphones to start with. Their education is such a priority as it is a ticket to get them and their families out of poverty.

    In 2020, schooling was severely compromise and the education authorities have spoken much about the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic. It is true that the pandemic has ravaged the countries world-wide, but the decisions taken by education authorities in each country will determine how successful each country wins on ensuring that their young ones progress to the next grades having learnt enough content to form the base for the next grade’s content.

    Do all South African public schools have a space problem at this moment? Not at all. The majority of former model C schools have reasonable class sizes. The social distancing in the class of 35 learners may not be a challenge compared to a township school. Here the schools could be allowed to work with enough ventilation in order to curb the spread of the virus as long as all other health protocols are being followed. That would leave us with a township school to work around with.

    Taking from what happened in Gauteng with the exorbitant amounts being spent on an exercise of fumigation and sanitization of schools which would have been avoided, the highly congested schools could have been identified and prioritized with the supply of extra classrooms. In this way, the department will have moved much closer to solving the lingering problem of overcrowding in the classes. In this way, they the authorities keep on emphasizing that that the Covid-19 era will be with us for a longer period of time, it means that every township school must be resourced enough to solve the overcrowding permanently.

    A school of 1200 learners for example, will need 48 classes in order to house 25 learners in one class. As a result, an average of about 10 or 15 mobile classrooms could have been procured last year already in preparation for 2021. An average period in a school is an hour and with 25 learners at most 30 is a small thing compared to the 18 hours flight of 500 passengers without social distancing. The main problem that the schools will have been faced with would be the supply of teachers, which could have been mediated through negotiations with universities to release the third year Funza Lushaka into schools complementing them with the unemployed teachers already available within the communities to ensure that maximum teaching takes place in the class.

    As it stands, the universities will one way or another find themselves having to deal with the new entrants who are not necessarily ready for the varsity’s intensive program and this may not just be for one year but more years depending on how long this challenge stays in its current form.

    The decision to get the independent schools to have an advantage of the two weeks is an indication that the authorities care less about the progress of the marginalized and the disadvantaged. What makes it even difficult to understand is that the same people who have chosen to keep quiet or are in favour of the further postponements of the reopening of the public schools claim to represent the aspirations of the poor people of this country. One thing remains certain in this situation, the gap that existed because of the apartheid past is widening in the new dispensation. What is more painful is that those who are supposed to be the champions of the progress for the future are the ones who are taking these decisions under the guise of saving lives.


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