We come together united by a long-term commitment to education and rural development, to motivate that we approach the Covid-19 crisis as one that fundamentally combines health, the economy and education. We motivate to rapidly extend the stimulus package to make a massive once-off investment into equalising the basic resources of schooling, with an emphasis on primary schooling and early childhood development.
As a nation, we have been focusing our attention on the Covid-19 curve.
We draw attention to another curve. We can call it the Ed-Curve. It consistently destroys between 60% and 70% of our children’s lives.
The Ed-Curve represents children’s educational performance by measures of socio-economic status of a child. Across the world, there is a relationship between educational performance and the socio-economic circumstances of a child.
The South African Ed-Curve is more severe than this international norm. Analysts describe the South African Ed-Curve as “bi-modal” because it reflects two school universes within one nation.
In the top quintile of schools (former “Model C” schools) the global rules apply. Children from more wealthy homes have a statistically better chance of learning to read with meaning by the end of Grade 4. Children from less wealthy families have an uphill battle, but they still have a fighting chance. Taken together, 65% of children achieve the low international benchmark for Grade 4 reading.
If we focus on the poorest 60% of schools, the line looks very different. Like an electroencephalogram (EEG) of a patient in a protracted coma, the line is basically flat. Only 11% of children in the poorest quintile reached the lowest international benchmark, increasing to only 15% by the third quintile. Statistically speaking, 60% of children do not have a fighting chance to learn to read with meaning by the end of Grade 4. Schooling fails not only to mediate inequality, but makes it worse.
Why is the system so unproductive for 60% of the school system? Education is notoriously complex; solutions take time.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is working to build sustainable solutions. However, one starting point remains intractable. Teachers in rural schools do not have the basic resources that give them a fighting chance to succeed.
Covid-19 has clarified our national understanding that we cannot expect health care professionals to take on this challenge unless we provide them with the basic resources that enable them to do their jobs. It has forced us to take a calculated political and economic risk to invest into our nation beyond normal fiscal disciplines.
When applied to education, this means identifying the basic resources that provide teachers and children with a fighting chance to perform, and holding ourselves accountable to achieving these “norms and standards” across all schools.
In the past 10 days, we have observed rising public tensions as the DBE has grappled with how to safely open schools. The department has established “non-negotiable” pre- conditions for school opening. Despite assurances from the Minister of Basic Education, there is little trust among teachers and parents that their concerns have been heard.
One of the most important assets of any education system is the solidarity between and among parents, teachers, and the educational systems and authorities of the state. Solidarity is under threat not simply from Covid-19, but from a system that has been unable to fully respond to the daily struggles of rural schools for too long.
The public knows, in its bones, the task at hand lies beyond the resources and systems currently at the disposal of the DBE. We believe the public is unlikely to trust the plans going forward unless education is provided with a massively extended mandate, machinery and resources to get the job done.
While the detail of an educational stimulus plan lies beyond this call, we highlight a few elements below.
First, Covid-19 threatens to further undermine the early childhood development services serving poor children. A recent rapid analysis undertaken by ECD stakeholders concludes that between 20000 and 30000 centres run the acute risk of closure. We must ensure that the stimulus package reaches people working in early childhood development, whether registered or not.
Second, we must make a massive investment into school infrastructure (classrooms - including Grade R and RR, sanitation facilities, water, electricity, staff rooms, furniture, libraries and playgrounds), teaching and learning resources and ensuring pupil-teacher ratios do not exceed policy expectations in each classroom setting. This includes the “non- negotiables” identified by the DBE (classrooms, substitute teacher posts, water, safe sanitation, cleaners) and the less obvious resources that contribute to building a more differentiated culture of teaching and learning where every child has a sense of individual learning space (moveable desks and learning resources for each child). The DBE has detailed plans to address many of these concerns; it is time we mobilise the resources and private sector skills to get the job done.
Third, we need to invest quickly into building the online resources and capacities of rural schools. Middle-class teachers and parents are rapidly strengthening their capabilities to leverage online resources to support children. The shift to supplement traditional teaching with online resources will grow in the future. Without a radical investment into upgrading rural teachers, children in rural schools will again be left impossibly behind. We must use this period to ensure all teachers have appropriate technology, data, connectivity, and experiences using online resources for teaching and collaboration.
Teachers must be equipped to engage parents in homes to support schooling (during and after the Covid-19 crisis). This includes combining an increase of the child grants with affordable mobile phones for parents, better zero-rated data for educational engagement, and tools for parental support in modest homes.
Far from a critique of the DBE, this is a call to get behind the work of the department. If we fail to undertake a massive plan of reconstruction in this period, Covid-19 will rip the “two universes of schooling” further and further apart. We call on the Covid-19 Command Council to make an unprecedented investment into rural schools, ensuring that we open the 2021 school year with a vastly more equitable landscape for schooling.
* Buhlungu is Vice Chancellor, University of Fort Hare Dladla, is CEO of the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency Hatang is CEO, of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Mazeka is the Alfred Nzo District Co-ordinator, Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development Mncube is the Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Fort Hare Moletsane is the John Langalibalele Dube Chair in Rural Education, UKZN Ngebulana is CEO and Deputy Chairperson, Rebosis Property Fund Phiri is the Operations Manager, Zenzele Itereleng Porteus is the Executive Director, Nelson Mandela Institute, University of Fort Hare Tom, is an independent consultant, Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health
Originally published on IOL