/ 13 February 2022

Don’t put it all down to Covid-19, the education system was already broken

Matric Class At Rosendaal Senior School Wear Masks Donated By Metropolitan Life In South Africa
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown South Africa's schooling system into further disarray. (Photo by Roger Sedres/Gallo Images via Getty Images)


The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown South Africa’s schooling system into further disarray, demonstrating how the country’s education system, defined by the apartheid regime’s legacy, lacks resilience in the face of disruption. 

Research, compiled by Amnesty International, shows that many people continue to live with the consequences of political and economic decisions made during apartheid, where schools that served white children are better resourced than those that served black children. 

There is no doubt that the education system is plagued by inefficiency and leads to a large number of children falling between the cracks and being failed by the very institutions that are supposed to open up opportunities. 

In 2017, the OECD Benchmarking report assessed the quality of education globally with South Africa ranking 75th out of 76 countries. Finland was ranked first, with Japan coming in second, South Korea third and Denmark fourth. There are many contributing factors to this. South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality, edited by Nic Spaull and Jonathan Jansen, and the Centre for Education Policy Development identified these factors as: 

  • Children who leave school unable to read, write and do arithmetic; 
  • Teachers who lack the ability and knowledge to teach children the required skills;
  • A shortage of teachers; and
  • Low teacher performance. 

These factors are exacerbated by a shortage of resources, which in turn exacerbates poor performance by schoolchildren. 

Learning losses

The Covid-19 pandemic stunned the world’s education systems, limiting educational opportunities for many students at all levels and in most countries, particularly for the poor and those who are otherwise disenfranchised. In an article by the United Nations Children’s Fund on 22 July 2021, it was noted that the effect of disrupted schooling since the Covid-19 outbreak has been disastrous. Schoolchildren have lost 54% of their learning time because of rotational attendance, intermittent cancellations and days off for specific grades. 

Dropping out

According to the report released by South Africa’s National Income Dynamics Study- Coronavirus Rapid Mobile (NIDS-CRAM) on 12 May 2021, 750 000 learners dropped out of school during the Covid-19 epidemic — three times the pre-pandemic average — an  enormous increase from the pre-pandemic numbers of 230 000. These alarming statistics have reportedly led to school attendance being at the lowest level in 20 years. 

According to Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, of the department of education, the interferences caused by the pandemic have played a huge role in children not returning to school. Mohohlwane said the provinces that were observed to have had the lowest returns to school were Eastern Cape (92%) and Free State (87%).

Schools used a rotational attendance system since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to minimise social contact and mitigate potential Covid-19 cases. The system seemed to work at the time given the predicament the globe was in. But it was quickly understood that this was not optimal. 

Sarah Howie, of Stellenbosch University, told Xinhua that rotational learning is harmful to children of all ages, particularly those in the foundation phase. This was reinforced by Mohohlwane who stated that although this is an effort to combat learning losses across the continent and developing countries, we are not yet at a point where we can substitute in-person schooling with remote learning. 

The current state of education in South Africa is characterised by regular disruptions, too little learning, and high levels of inequality in the education system. One of the most important factors influencing learner outcomes is children’s socioeconomic status. Although access to education may not be limited, the quality of education is not certain, particularly for black children. 

Insufficient resources

According to an article on the daily vox, schools in peri-urban and rural areas account for 75% of the schooling system. These schools predominantly serve impoverished black children, and they continue to be overcrowded, dysfunctional and insufficiently resourced. In a country where inequality is endemic and is heightened by various factors such as shortage of physical infrastructure, illegal pit latrines, no library facilities and shortage of teachers among many other factors, there is a need for a rapid response to the current statistics that we are seeing. 

The conditions cannot continue as is and we cannot continue to blame the learning outcomes on the Covid-19 pandemic. The learning losses that were encountered in the past two years have been devastating; the first step to addressing this crisis being the recent return to full time school attendance. It is important for the sector to ensure that appropriate remedial measures have been implemented to help children who have missed out and help them get back on track to counter long-term learning losses.

In response to the increasing number of school dropouts, there is a need for organisations, academics, the government and all role players in the education sector to come together to collaborate on an effective recovery plan for the schooling system, not only as a reaction to Covid-19, but to future proof the education system. 

With the resumption of full-time school attendance, collaboration is an important tool for education interventions in the country to achieve educational change. Although collaboration is not simple, when all actors are committed to a singular purpose, they are more likely to overcome the gaps and meet students’ needs.