Brahm Fleisch on South African education during the pandemic

What predictable problems and unexpected surprises have emerged in schools in South Africa during the pandemic? This week IEN interviews Brahm Fleisch to gain his perspective on the school closures that began in March of 2020 and the resumption of in-person schooling, for some students, in August. Fleisch is a professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the School of Education, University of Witwatersrand. Fleisch has written extensively about the challenges and opportunities for improving schooling in South Africa. That work includes the development of the Early Grade Reading Study and examinations of what it may take to establish a New Infrastructure for Learning that strengthens foundational learning and the instructional core.   

IEN: What has been happening in schools in South Africa since the pandemic began? 

Brahm Fleisch: One of the standout characteristics of South African education is the extreme inequality. The pandemic has exacerbated it. Elite private and middle-class schools in the public sector (about 10-15%) rapidly moved online. And while there were concerns about the quality of teaching and learning taking place online, most middle-class children were able to return to some form of schooling routine. This was not the case for most working-class and rural children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black. Given the high cost of data, and the limited digital infrastructure in schools serving the majority of children, the evidence suggests that most of these children had very little schooling in 2020. This has continued into 2021. Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling. The majority of schoolchildren have experienced substantial learning loss. 

Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling.

IEN: What has worked?  

BF: South Africa has a national curriculum, most often referred to as the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). The government strategy last year was to “streamline” the curriculum, that is, cut the number of topics or themes to be covered in each of the respective subjects, assuming that the curriculum content that was missed would be covered in later grades. The problems with the curriculum streamlining approach is that it assumes that children have acquired the core basic knowledge and skills. At least for the early grades, the evidence suggests that the proportion of children able to read fluently in either their home language and/or in English (the language of schooling for the majority from Grade 4 onward) has dropped dramatically.  If majority of children haven’t learnt to read or lost the skill of reading, streamlining is not going to help. While there is clearly a serious problem with government strategy, two important developments need to be highlighted.  First, the national education department facilitated the development of a dedicated TV channel to make lessons in the high-stakes subjects available for all secondary school learners.  Unlike using the internet, which has serious financial limitations, nearly all parts of South Africa have access to public broadcasting and is a relatively low-cost way to reach poor and rural communities. Second, after the first major period of lockdown, the schools were required (by a court interdict) to provide school feeding even when the schools were formally closed.  Without doubt, ensuring that children received a daily meal benefited the majority of South African children.

IEN: What has surprised you?

BF: No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community.  Much of the work of university researchers had been focused on documenting the major inadequacies of schools. In particular, the research had focused on both the overall low levels of learning taking place and the gap between children at the top and bottom of the income distribution.  What was never fully appreciated is that despite the major weaknesses of the school system, children and their parents really missed the routines, rhythms and rituals of schooling.  And while some school types did emerge such as the pod schools (small private classes of between 5 and 10 children of different ages mostly working online in a common space), it is hard to say if the new model will endure beyond the pandemic.  These ‘schools’ fitted somewhere between home schooling and small private schools.  While pod schools emerged in an ad hoc fashion to address the needs of children and parents, given the choice most children and their parents appear to be shifting back to more traditional school models.

IEN: What have you learned? 

 BF: As suggested above, there have been two clear learnings from the pandemic. First, absence from face-to-face schooling for a prolonged period disproportionately negatively impacts poor and working-class children. Although schools tend to reproduce inequality, the absence of schooling in conventional school buildings accentuated this inequality. The second insight suggest the deep cultural resonance of the archaic 19th century institutional form. All the talk about 21st Century skills and personalized learning appeared to signal a potential revolution in how we organize education.  If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model. 

No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community…If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model. 

IEN: What’s next — what are you working on now?

BF: In the Global South, in systems such as those of South Asia (and South Africa), the challenge is to shift focus from curriculum compliance towards teaching at the right level. For these education systems that placed an emphasis on the syllabus or schemes of work, rethinking what teachers do in classroom with children who may be years behind curriculum expectations is going to be very challenging. For example, middle school teachers are going to be forced to confront a growing majority of children who cannot read for meaning or do basic mathematics. Simply doing the same, or even a slimmed down version of the national curriculum is likely to make things worse rather than better. Real thinking needs to go into teaching basic skills further and further up the system. 

Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide. 

IEN: What’s your hope for the future?

BF: Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide.  We need greater effort on how we can mobilize the resources of the state better, unleash the creative energy of teachers as an organized profession, excite parents and students in diverse communities towards the task of incremental but sustainable improvement of teaching and learning.  

One response to “Brahm Fleisch on South African education during the pandemic

  1. Personally, I feel you’ve contributed a lot to this topic. This is truly a great informative article. Thank you.

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