This week Sarah Etzel draws on a scan of policy changes, research, and news articles to review post-COVID educational developments in Finland, New Zealand, and South Africa. The report is part of an ongoing project that investigates changes in education policies and practices following the school closures of the COVID-19 pandemic (What’s Changing Post-Covid in Finland, New Zealand, and South Africa; Brahm Fleisch on South African education during the pandemic; What has remote learning looked like in Finland? School closures, equity, stress, and well-being). The project aims to identify key opportunities for creating more powerful and equitable educational opportunities and outcomes and to foster the conditions for transforming schooling in the future.
Although post-pandemic initiatives in Finland and New Zealand have quickly turned towards long-term recovery, South Africa is still dealing with longstanding infrastructure issues and concerns about disruptions to education that preceded the pandemic. In fact, in South Africa, although widespread COVID-related school closures have ended, floods, power outages, and safety concerns contribute to the continued loss of learning time.
Power outages caused by load shedding have been a particular concern in schools that do not have sufficient natural light or back-up power generators, leading to calls from the Congress of South African Students for the firing of industry and government officials responsible for the negative impact load shedding has had on teaching, learning and exam preparation. Beyond the loss of time in school, education officials in several provinces pointed out how disruptive the power outages can be for students trying to study at home. In the wake of problems with schools being looted and vandalized during the school closures and protests and riots in 2021, officials in provinces like KwaZulu-Natal also expressed concerns about the security of schools and the exam process itself, noting that schools have become caught in the crossfire when there are disputes and protests. As the KZN Education Department Spokesperson put it: “It is very disturbing that whenever communities have an issue to raise with authorities our schools become soft targets, as community members find it easy to disrupt schools in order to raise their service delivery concerns.”
Whenever communities have an issue to raise with authorities our schools become soft targets, as community members find it easy to disrupt schools in order to raise their service delivery concerns
In the wake of the pandemic, numerous reports in South Africa, as in other systems, also point to concerns about “learning loss” among students. According to UNICEF, as of 2021 learners in South Africa were between “75 percent and a whole school year behind where they should be.” Most recently, a panel of researchers who have been reviewing South Africa’s progress on literacy reported findings that revealed the pandemic “erased a decade of progress” in reading outcomes for South Africa. Findings from the report, however, make it clear that while academic achievement in South Africa may have gotten worse, it was already extremely low: in fact, although the latest figures show that only 18% of students in Grade 4 could read, only 28% could read pre-pandemic, with 50% of students in no-fee schools still not knowing the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.
Reports on recommendations for addressing continuing concerns about these outcomes include a push for business sector involvement as well as additional teacher training. The emphasis on teacher training was echoed by South Africa’s Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, who called for reforms to provide teachers with greater support and autonomy, in order to better support SA students. Motshekga also argued that unions should push for post-covid curricular reforms to better serve SA students and teachers. According to a report by the Afrika Tikkun Foundation (ATF) the failure to address the long-standing digital divide in South Africa also contributes to the problem. In addition, RISE reports that the current educational challenges in South Africa stem from a combination of long-standing barriers within the political, public service, management, and educational sectors, including a lack of reliable learning measures.
South Africa Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, IOL
“We need to also incrementally move towards making sure that we skill, strengthen and educate our children through the skills that are required to enable them to pursue meaningful lives and careers”
– Angie Motshekga, Basic Education Minister, South Africa
In contrast to South Africa, news reports from Finland and New Zealand show that these developed education systems have turned relatively quickly from issues like getting students back in school and providing internet access to focus on investments in teachers, instruction and enrichment, particularly for underserved populations. For example, during the pandemic Finland added additional resource teachers, which Finland’s teachers union (OAJ) reports resulted in reductions to class sizes and student-teacher ratios. With the additional hires, schools have been able to divide classes into smaller groups, allowing teachers to provide more individualized attention to students. Furthermore, Finland announced a 7.7 billion Euro budget proposal to address equity related issues with programs designed to boost student capacities through arts and cultural opportunities. The proposal will also support language instruction from primary through secondary school, with funding set aside for curriculum planning and increased classes. Additionally, student wellbeing is addressed through a proposed 77 million Euro investment in Youth Work, which includes recreational and after school activities that promote “wellbeing, equality, and nondiscrimination of young people.”
“In the last budget of the parliamentary term, we will continue restoring the integrity of education implemented by this Government by allocating additional funding for education once more. Investments in early childhood education and care, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education will help children and young people recover and bridge the learning gap in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic years. Every single child and young person has the right to high-quality education,” — Li Andersson, Minister of Education, Finland
Finland: Additional funding has been used to hire more teachers, YLE
New Zealand has also been focusing on the pandemic’s effect on student progress and taken steps to address its impact on learning. In the final months of 2022, students returned to in-person, and restriction free examinations occured for the first time since 2019. According to RNZ, the results from some schools have shown that the pandemic set students back by months. As one official put it, “ “From the small data size that we’ve seen, it doesn’t show that it’s quite as bad as losing a whole year but it does show that quite a few months have been lost.”
New Zealand students sit NCEA exams without COVID-19 restrictions, RNZ
As we reported last year, New Zealand had already announced a $75.8 million investment for education and wellbeing. That initiative has resulted in a total of $199 million in spending. Over the past year, the Ministry of Education has continued efforts to support students wellbeing and learning through an investment of $20 million towards tutoring and one-on-one mentorship services for students who are struggling to catch up from the pandemic. To further address concerns of learning loss, New Zealand has also prioritized supporting students through increased teacher recruitment. The New Zealand Herald reports that $24 million of the government’s $44 million recent budget increase will go towards teacher recruitment. New Zealand has also proposed several curriculum and standards changes to increase educational equity, particularly in support of Maori students. Furthermore, the government has called for active participation and feedback in the reform process as one step to create inclusivity.