/ 3 June 2020

Education is a political and ethical matter

The party-political capture of student activism was seen by the meeting as symptomatic of a larger
Some schools, predominantly the better-resourced schools, have been able to carry on with teaching online whereas in many other schools, learners have had to make do with a couple of radio and television lessons. (Graphic: John McCann)


With the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, ministerial announcements and public commentary, never before have Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire’s ideas about education been more relevant. 

In 1970 Freire argued that education is political and ethical, and cannot be detached from the current context of social and political realities. This is evident in the policies that govern education, the distribution of educational resources across the country, the pedagogy and the assessments used in classrooms. 

Every day, politicians, parents and society at large are debating whether schools should reopen or not. Many are questioning how the academic year will be completed, and raising curriculum and instruction issues. Pedagogy —  the methods and practice of teaching — has come under the spotlight as learners and teachers are expected to rapidly transition from face-to-face to online, remote learning and teaching.

Pedagogy and resources

Epistemological access has become a glaring issue during this period. Some learners have access to information and technology, but even then, the process of learning is difficult, including a lack of study space in many homes as room is taken up by family members in lockdown. It is thus important to understand that access to gadgets and information does not always result in learning taking place. 

Plunged into the deep end, not all teachers are equipped with the required technological devices and the online or blended pedagogy required. We accept that we must move with the times and do what we can to salvage the situation, but we cannot ignore the online pedagogical expertise that many of our teachers lack. 

Those with online skills and good guidance have created online classrooms on multiple platforms. This is commendable, however we have to question how equitable outcomes can be achieved nationally when there is uneven guidance to support the achievement of online skills for all teachers.

The gap is considerable. Some schools, predominantly the better-resourced schools, have been able to carry on with teaching online whereas in many other schools, learners have had to make do with a couple of radio and television lessons. Within schools there is also unevenness in the distribution of devices, as not all teachers possess smartphones or laptops to be able to teach online. 

What is in question is the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4, which speaks to the provision of quality education for all learners. Furthermore, in the department of basic education’s (DBE) 2016 strategic plan, two critical priority areas and mandates of the National Development Plan refer to the drawing up of a joint plan to roll out broadband ICT infrastructure so that all schools should meet the minimum infrastructure standards by 2016. Moreover, the 2004 White Paper on e-Education sketches out the fundamentals of transformed learning and teaching through information and communication technologies. What we are sorely experiencing during this pandemic is the lack of achievement of these goals as many schools on the ground have no experience of them at all. This affects their academic success enormously.

As for the DBE option of home-schooling, who does this option benefit? Many parents do not have the means or the knowledge of the curriculum and depend on public schooling for the education of their children.

All of these issues bring to the fore our racialised, post-apartheid, bimodal education system that reinforces inequality and perpetuates the coexistence of poverty and privilege.

Inflexible assessment

Another important question that has been highlighted during this period centres on statements made by the DBE that the grade 12 examination papers were set a long time ago and therefore the curriculum cannot be adjusted, irrespective of the schooling days missed. If assessment is going to be so rigid and inflexible, one wonders how we can claim that assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning? We know that the curriculum is not only about the content, but about the environment in which it is delivered and the teachers who deliver it. To ignore all of these critical aspects is highly questionable. 

For some township and rural schools, even in a normal year, when learners can attend school every day, there are multiple issues, including learner transport, water and sanitation, feeding scheme and safety and security issues. These learners are expected to perform at the same level as learners who do not experience these problems. Now the pandemic has added to this burden and yet we still expect these learners to perform well and complete the academic year. With full knowledge of the uneven learning that has been taking place across the country, is this fair?

Reopening of schools 

With regard to the reopening of schools, to say that if schools do not comply with the requirements of the department for Covid-19 they will not be allowed to start up again, is very irresponsible. We know that many of the schools that will not be ready are the schools in the rural areas and townships. How can we further disadvantage these learners? What is the plan to assist these schools to comply and address their non-existent connectivity and infrastructure?

We simply cannot behave as if everything is “normal”. The education sector as a whole needs to reflect, recalibrate and reimagine the best way forward during and beyond Covid-19, considering the circumstances. We need to re-look at how we envisage completing the academic year; we need to look at where our schools are and who our learners are in those schools. Knowing who the learner is gives us the opportunity to be aware of their learning needs, their circumstances and to plan accordingly. This is not optional; as educators we are compelled to do so.