Under pressure: Schoolchildren are being rushed through the essential parts of the curriculum . (Madelene Cronjé)
Inam Makhetha was excited about starting grade 8. When she was in primary school she already knew which high school she wanted to attend. And because of her good marks it was easy to get into the high school of her choice. Her mother did not even experience the frustration that can come with the Gauteng department of education’s online applications for grades 1 and 8.
Inam was settling in at her new school when, three months in, things took a dramatic twist. Covid-19 hit South Africa. The lockdown was implemented. Since then, she has been at home.
Before the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday, July 23, Inam was to have been in the last group of learners to return to school — on August 31, as noted by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in the Government Gazette on July 7.
The announcement by the president that schools will be closed until August 24, means Inam will have been at home for five months.
“I am sad. I had told myself that I am left with five years until I finish my studies. But it now seems that I will have to repeat grade 8 next year,” she says.
She has been studying during the lockdown, using her textbooks. But she is battling with natural sciences and has no one to assist her at home.
“I cannot ask my friends to help me because the rules by the government say no visits are allowed. So I have left it.”
Grade 12 will return to school on August 3 and grade 7 on August 10, but Motshekga has yet to announce when other grades will return.
After Ramaphosa’s address, her department released a statement saying that the break will enable schools to prepare for the return of more grades later in August.
The president also announced that the academic year will be extended to next year.
The dean of education at the University of Pretoria, Professor Chika Sehoole, believes there are two determinants for the successful completion of the academic year and whether the grades that were yet to return to class will be ready to progress to the next grade. These are the trimming of the curriculum and how long the academic year would be extended by.
So far the grades that had returned to school were: 12, 11, 10, 7, 6, 3, R and certain groups of learners from special education needs schools.
Sehoole cautioned that the extension of the school calendar should not necessarily match the number of months the learners have been at home. Some learners would need time to catch up with school work and an effort will be required to restore things to normality next year.
“So the earlier this year’s academic year concludes and we prepare for the following academic year, the better,” he says.
The curriculum will have to be adjusted, according to Sehoole. This will entail looking at what can be done away with and teachers should only focus the core skills that learners need to progress to the next grade.
In April, the department’s deputy minister, Reginah Mhaule, told Parliament that the curriculum for all grades, except grade 12, would be reworked and that only strategic topics would be covered.
But some parents, like Milisa Piko, whose daughter Inati attends a school in the Western Cape, are sceptical about the reworking of curriculum and do not believe that it will meet her grade 5 daughter’s needs.
“I have been with my child all these months. I do not think she is ready to progress to the next stage. And whatever catch-up or reworked curriculum the school will employ, I do not think it will help.”
She says that although Inati has been given schoolwork to do at home, she still is not confident that her daughter would be able to move to the next grade. As it is, she says, Inati is behind by three weeks of the work she is supposed to do at home. Piko attributes this to her also having to work from home and, because she is not a teacher, she found it difficult to explain some of the concepts to her daughter.
“I have already had a discussion with her that she might have to repeat the grade next year. The teachers could argue otherwise but as a parent I do not think she is ready to progress to the next grade,” says Piko.
Inati had been at school for two days when Ramaphosa announced the break.
She misses school. “That made me unhappy. I have been wanting to go back to school since the lockdown and I did not believe it when we were told we are getting a break again. So now I’m stuck in quarantine and I hope they are going to open the schools again.”
Inati says it has also been difficult to concentrate on her school work at home, especially with her younger brother around. She also misses her friends and was happy to be reunited with them, even if it was just for a couple of days.
Even though grade 5 was to have returned to class only on August 31 as stated in the July 7 Government Gazette, Inati went back earlier, because schools that could prove they were ready to welcome back more learners were allowed to deviate from the national directive.
Olwethu Matsipane’s daughter had been at school for two weeks when the break was announced. The school also deviated and allowed children in grade 3 back even though the class was meant to return on July 20.
Matsipane says she was happy with the teaching method her daughter’s school used and she was confident that Entle would quickly catch up with her school work.
The grade was divided to create a smaller group of learners, which means learners get more individual attention from the teacher, and the groups alternated the days they went to school.
Entle moved to the school this year from a private school, which had a different curriculum, and Matsipane believes that interaction in the classroom is vital for her daughter.
She says Entle does her schoolwork at home under her supervision, but only when she is not busy with her own work. She is also concerned because she is not a teacher and does not know what methods teachers use to assess the progress of a learner.
Matsipane says is not sure whether Entle should move on to the next grade. But Entle says she has “zero confidence” that she will go to grade 4 next year.
“It is much easier to be at school because I always have someone around to help me. Everything just backfired this year.”