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by Zukiswa Pikoli [first published in Maverick Citizen]

A Public Affairs Research Institute webinar on institutional coordination of the return to schools agreed that parents’ participation in their children’s education would improve with better access to information such as study guides. Parents could then better help with learning at home and continue teaching on days that children were restricted from attending school. The definition of distance learning needed to be expanded to not only mean online learning.

The Public Affairs Research Institute launched its working paper titled Exploring Institutional Coordination of the Return to Schools with a webinar discussion on Thursday, 11 February. The speakers at the discussion were education activists Dr Faranaaz Veriava from SECTION27, Professor Martin Gustafsson from the University of Stellenbosch, Xolisa Guzula from the University of Cape Town and South African Democratic Teachers’ Union General Secretary, Mugwena Maluleke.

The paper states that “Based on interviews with provincial education officials in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, as well as other education stakeholders, this Working Paper finds that the reopening of schools in these South African provinces was predicated on three factors.

“The central factor is institutional coordination, whereby various education organisations and government departments facilitated the reopening of schools using a combination of their capacities and resources. Institutional coordination was not only integral to reopening schools; it also raises critical questions about South Africa’s intergovernmental system.

“The second factor is the development of new capacities by both PEDs (provincial education departments). Both the PEDs developed new capacities in their provinces; partly as a result of harnessing capacity and resources through institutional coordination, and partly as a result of the nature of the pandemic which forced PEDs to find ways of reopening schools and providing education-related services.

“The third factor is the role and relevance of teachers. The immense responsibilities placed on teachers during a pandemic not only contradicted some public sentiments that teachers were reluctant to reopen schools, it also demonstrates how current policies for teacher availability, placement and training have failed.”

According to the Department Basic Education (DBE) Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule, the reopening of schools had been postponed to 15 February in order to relieve pressure on the health system and allow for adequate preparation for their reopening.

The paper emphasises that if schools are to successfully reopen, the role of teachers is integral in terms of working out not only curriculum and timetables, but also how they navigate dealing with the pandemic in schools as well as in their communities.

Veriava noted that whether schools opened and under what conditions schools should reopen had been a source of anxiety for parents, teachers and learners alike.

Fifty-four percent of respondents to the National School readiness survey spoke about their anxiety during the pandemic and the need for psycho-social support, and the need for vaccine literacy to be targeted in teacher communities.

However, it was important because education “is a constitutional imperative” she said.

Speaking about institutional coordination and the lack thereof, Veriava remarked that this was apparent in the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) case that SECTION27 and Equal Education had to bring against the DBE, compelling the department to continue to feed learners during lockdown.

Even after the court order saying that the DBE was to resume the NSNP, provisions were not put in place by the DBE to ensure that school transportation was facilitated for learners to get to school to get their food or for food parcels to be given to learners who were not able to go to school every day to eat.

Veriava said that when it came to online learning, statistics had shown that 75% of learners had struggled to get access to online learning materials. As a result, she said that it was necessary to revisit the DBE’s obligation to provide all learners with textbooks so they could continue with their studies.

With all the efforts and reallocation of funds and resources that the government was now making available as a result of the Covid-19 urgency, Veriava cautioned that it was important to remember that there were still longstanding infrastructure deficit issues that should not be forgotten.

Guzula said that the shortcomings of online learning had long been flagged as an uneven system. This was not only because most children did not have access to the internet, but that it also presented a language barrier.

Guzula said that while she appreciated those who worked tirelessly to ensure the DBE continued to function, she was also saddened that it took the Covid-19 pandemic to highlight the department’s infrastructure failings that had for years been pervasive.

She highlighted that there had been instances of school governing bodies and principals being afraid to speak out about not having adequate PPE for fear of being targeted by their “superiors” at the department.

Guzula said the continuation of learning programmes via radio and TV was important to assist children unable to access online learning. She said the printing of study guides for parents was important so that they could home school learners on days when they were restricted from being at school.

Maluleke said that he found the national and provincial education departments worked in silos which was not conducive to institutional coordination.

He said this created a situation where departments “mostly focused on statistics… the issue is not more about the health and safety of learners and teachers”.

“Do we see collaboration between departments or do we see contestation?”

Maluleke also criticised the DBE for not wanting to work with civil society to participate in education, but instead adopted the attitude that civil society was “interfering on their territory”.

“Higher education institutions must strengthen the recruitment of teachers by making sure that when you register as a teacher you are a real candidate for that, you’ve got to go through rigorous admission and policy so that we are able to produce that professionals that we need,” said Maluleke

Gustafsson said that when looking at education, it was important to do so within the framework of UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 on the quality of education.

He said that while South Africa’s level of learning was low for a country of its standing, it was improving, particularly when looking at immediate neighbours such as Botswana.

He said that what was needed was an assessment of what it was that South Africa was hoping to get from Information and Communications Technology (ICT) with regards to learning and understanding how it would enhance learning and then develop a national strategy.

The participants were adamant that parents’ participation in their children’s education needed to be improved by better access to information such as study guides. This was so that they could help with learning at home, to continue teaching on days that children were restricted from attending school and that the definition of distance learning needed to be expanded to not only mean online learning. DM/MC