An Educator Speaks Out: Our Public School System Is Broken, Here’s How To Fix It

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching in just about every sector of South Africa, but while many businesses and workers stand a hope of recovery, children in the public education sector aren’t as fortunate.

Already at a disadvantage before the pandemic with as many as 65 learners – or more – per class, learners in the public system have been further subjected to limited days in the classroom to allow for social distancing.

“This means that classrooms are no longer teaching spaces, they’re compliance environments,” says Bafana Mohale, education manager at Rays of Hope, an NGO that focuses on uplifting the Alexandra township community. “Even though there are fewer teaching days per pupil, teachers are still expected to complete the curriculum. This means that children are bombarded with activities, with little time to ensure they’ve understood new concepts.”

While the learners at schools in more affluent areas were able to complete some or all lessons online, this was simply not possible for learners at no-fee schools, most of whom do not have computers at home, let alone connectivity to the internet.

Even though their parents may have smart phones that could be used to connect to online classes, parents are at work – with their phones – during the day when synchronous online learning takes place. What’s more, data is expensive, and while platforms like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams may be free to access, they still use data – and a lot of it when sharing videos.

“I challenge the network operators and internet service providers, who literally have the power at their fingertips to open all the education possibilities of the online world to help our township children overcome the obstacles placed in their path by zero-rating education websites, and even platforms like YouTube, where so much content lives,” he says. “It’s all very well that the platforms are free – but without zero-rating, there’s no way that these learners can access the content they need.”

Mohale says that the pandemic has hastened the conversation, but it’s time for Government, academics, and teachers to admit that there is a massive problem in state education – and that South Africa needs business, political and societal power to come together to give our children a better chance at having the education that they need to become productive members of the workforce.

With his training and experience as a teacher and his current studies for his Masters’ degree in education policy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mohale is well positioned to make suggestions about how the system could be improved.

“The change needs to start in early childhood development centres (ECD), where we need to make sure that we have quality teaching in response to clear goals, including learning English. While mother tongue instruction is a wonderful idea, our children hit a major bump in the road when they get to Grade 4. Up to that point, they’ve been learning everything in their mother tongue, but suddenly they must re-learn it in a new language – while learning the language from scratch. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Adding that he has been stigmatised in his own community for raising his children to speak English at home, Mohale says that this is the only way to create a strong base for their future education.

He also suggests that the school day needs to be longer, if children in the public school system are to gain any ground – ideally from 8am to 4pm each day, including a strong after school programme that offers food and transport.

Another suggestion is for schools’ curricula to be expanded into more vocational subjects, as well as the arts, to ensure that there are learning options for children with different talents and interests.

“These strategies are already in place with the various programmes that we offer at Rays of Hope, from our own ECD Centre to our Rose-Act Saturday school with its focus on English and Mathematics support,” he says. “Our Ignition programme mentors tertiary-level students as they embark on preparing for future careers – whether academically driven or more skills-based.

“But we have limited resources and capacity and can only accommodate a relatively small number of learners for these vital interventions,” he says.

“We need funding from corporates and public sector bodies to be able to expand the reach of these programmes, to truly give the children of Alexandra a fighting chance to rise above the system that is failing them now.

“It’s the only way that we’re going to change the heart-breaking statistic that out of every 100 children that start school in the public system, only 60 make it to matric, 40 pass matric – at a 30% pass mark, only 10 make it to tertiary education, and only 3 actually graduate. If anyone was wondering what the root cause of the desperate looting and violence was in July, they need look no further than those 60 learners out of every 100 who don’t ever finish their schooling – and are unemployable and desperate.”

If you or your business would like to invest in the future of education in Alexandra, you could support Rays of Hope through donations or ongoing sponsorships towards its programmes, or sponsoring individual children, for which relevant tax certificates can be supplied. For more information, visit Rays of Hope’s website