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Building bridges across the unequal education divide

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a long-lasting crisis that will affect education for decades to come. Not only has the educational landscape shifted but South Africa’s high rate of inequality, unemployment and concomitant socioeconomic challenges have resulted in schools having to support many vulnerable learners beyond the classroom. Added to the pressure is the fear of falling short in terms of curriculum coverage and skills development, the poor socioemotional wellbeing of staff, learners, and their parents as well as the most recent considerations towards a full-time return to schools amid fears of the third wave. Although the conversation in general seems to be bleak for most learners, perhaps there are ways to build bridges across the privilege and disadvantage divide that can be offered as one solution to South Africa’s education challenges.

If school leader responses to the Covid-19 crisis were to be equity oriented, focusing on ensuring that no child in their community is left behind, then the Nel Noddings notion of a pedagogy of care can spread education goodwill in ways that could be of benefit to all. One example of this kind of goodwill is when head of department of physical sciences, Leon Roets became involved in the creation of video content for Subjex, a website that supports and prepares grade 12 learners for the matric exams. Although access to the material on the website is offered at a price for affluent learners, a collaborative endeavour with iSchoolAfrica, Tomorrow Trust and the Alexandra Education Committee offered free offline access to the videos to poorer learners. In another instance, a principal of a well-off primary school in Meyerton mentions “illegally” printing material and sharing it at pick-up points at the local shops so that they could support neighbouring schools, ensuring no child would be left behind.

The question then becomes: how do such examples of reaching out and building bridges provide for a much more egalitarian outlook towards the project of equal education for all? It was Scott McLeod and Shelley Dulsky in their 2021 Frontiers in Education article Resilience, reorientation, and reinvention: School leadership during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, who suggest that those school leaders best able to respond to the current crisis are those who have a vision founded on clear values that enable them to empower the wider community (including sister schools) by focusing on a wider “family” engagement so as to ensure no part of the community is isolated or left behind. These leaders also build organisational capacity by seeding and developing a network of empathy, encouragement  and support reminiscent of a caring community. In being equity-oriented, such leaders ensure that no child, not just in their school, but in their wider circle is left behind.

It is heartwarming to note that even where the focus has been on curriculum coverage and education outcomes, that some school leaders with an unshakable moral purpose did their best for children who were most at risk. These gains made during the pandemic for an egalitarian bridge built in support of all learning for all children should not be lost. The ways in which this can be done include zero-rated educational websites, public-private partnerships that can equitably fund technology access and crisis-prepared leaders who can innovatively work together to decrease the polarisation and inequality gaps that might just be the African solution needed for an African problem.

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Kathija Yassim
Professor Kathija Yassim works in the department of education leadership and management at the University of Johannesburg
Leon Roets
Leon Roets is a master’s student in education

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