IOL  / by Lorenzo A Davids / By Opinion Time of article published Nov 3, 2020


Learners at the poorest schools in South Africa are at significant risk of life-long disadvantage due to Covid-19. In a country where academic pass rates are set at 30% with the full completion of the curriculum, we are facing an obvious crisis.

The South African school year has about 200 active school days. Professor Servaas van der Berg and Dr Nick Spaull from Stellenbosch University point out that “by early August, South African children will have lost between 30 and 59 days of school, depending on their grade”.


“Are we destroying the futures of the most impoverished learners in 2020, because the system, in a time of crisis, can only serve those with access?” Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)


They also estimate that “many learners will only attend half the school days in the second half of the year because of how schools implement social distancing”. That places the number of school days a learner will complete in 2020 at about 90 active school days out of the usual 200.

They emphasise that this will make it impossible for teachers to complete the curriculum, resulting in what I believe will be disastrous knowledge gaps in already highly challenged learning environments.

The average Grade 7 learner attending a no-fee school with no regular learner support services, from either parents or the system, already struggles to complete the standard 200-day school year successfully. Her ability to stay in the learning system is now significantly at risk.

She and her no-fee learner cohort will be the learners that will be the least able to catch up. Prof Van der Berg and Dr Spaull indicate that “global research shows that such learning losses could have lasting implications, even stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings”.

The minister of Basic Education, during an October 2020 press briefing, and reflecting on a presentation to Parliament’s Basic Education Committee, projected staggering drop-out rates for grades 7 and 12 for 2020. In the Eastern Cape, 3 350 Grade 7 pupils and 1 195 matric pupils are vulnerable to dropping out.

In Gauteng, the figure stands at 1 066 for Grade 7s and 1 087 for matrics. KwaZulu-Natal has the highest drop-out projection at 38 541 for Grade 7s and 18 708 for matrics.

These are the numbers that we should be worrying about. The 2020 learner cohort is facing multiple disadvantages: first, the mental conditioning by an education system that pegs their average pass requirement at 30% in a full academic year, will inform them that they will not succeed in 2020.

Second, they are in a year where the curriculum will not be completed, so their lack of knowledge content will not only negatively affect them as they prepare for exams, but also affect them for the rest of their lives.

Third, they will have such significant gaps in their knowledge that aspirations for future tertiary studies will now be beyond their reach.

Fourth, the on-average 90 days they have to engage with the curriculum, will drive up general emotions of disinterest and feelings of anxiety among them.

Finally, the quality of the learning engagements during those 90 days will drop due to pressure on them to “learn fast”, without the available coping support mechanisms.

This crisis is not the minister’s making, nor is it the failure of the various departments of education. The global pandemic was always going to impact vulnerable education systems more severely.

South Africa has the added challenge that the robustness of its education systems is still race- and economics-based. The poorest 40% of schools in South Africa fall into this category of high risk.

The Consortium on Research on Education stated in their Research Policy Brief that poor provinces have the majority of learners in the poverty quintiles. The Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal have on average 51% of their learners in these poverty quintiles.

Are we destroying the futures of the most impoverished learners in 2020, because the system, in a time of crisis, can only serve those with access to resources outside the system? What will the class of 2020 say to us 20 years from now?

* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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