It’s hard to quantify the damage that the Covid-19 pandemic has done to education in South Africa. The term “learning loss” has been thrown around casually, without a true appreciation for its devastating effects.
The gaps that have been created in terms of projected generational earnings losses, poverty and skills and knowledge deficiencies will take years to overcome, hampering the contributions that South Africa’s children will be equipped to make to our society and democracy in the future.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation called school closures “an unprecedented risk to children’s education, protection and well-being”.
The World Bank estimates that $10-trillion in earnings could be lost to the current cohort of learners, because of lower levels of learning and their potential for dropping out of school. But the real worry for South Africa is the negative effects of interrupted schooling on children’s educational outcomes, such as reduced schooling attainment and cognitive skills over their lifetime.
One of the many effects of the pandemic is that it magnified existing inequities in education. It’s easy to say we should never have been ignoring them in the first place. There’s a growing digital divide that leaves most South African students unable to participate in virtual learning scenarios. We can only hope that the greater awareness of the inequities will drive an increased urgency to fix them.
So, what can we do to continue to prepare our children for the future, and make sure they are ready to make their way in the new world they are stepping into?
For a start, we should stop thinking technology will fix the problem. Technology has never been the answer to our educational challenges. Like any other tool, its effectiveness is determined by who wields it, and how.
If we’re going to counter the effects of learning loss and uplift the education systems, we have to start with the professional development of our educators, and raise the esteem in which they are held. Education begins with teachers, and no education system in the world will change until we address them first.
Part of the problem is that educators aren’t seen as professional in South Africa. The perception is that the entry requirements to do a teaching degree are among the least rigorous of all degrees.
The fact is, people need rigorous education if they themselves are going to be educators. We have created an infinite cycle of under-preparation and under-service, where teachers aren’t the subject-matter experts they need to be.
There’s no other industry in the country where we put so little faith in the people who deliver the outcome. We expect our medical personnel to be qualified and equipped. Our accountants have degrees and experience. But when it comes to education, our views are different.
Every person you meet can tell you a story about the teacher who changed their lives. The teacher who saw potential in a troubled child, or awoke a lifelong love of writing, or set someone on a path that changed their life. Yet, we give little acknowledgement to the profession.
How do we change this? We must not just celebrate the achievements of their students; we must link student success directly to the role of teachers.
Government, independent education organisations and training institutions must forge partnerships, and commit to the work of professional development and training. We must make teaching a profession that is admired and create opportunities for more people to enter the educator pipeline. We must understand how to provide rigorous education, and ongoing professional development.
And yes, we can use technology to great benefit, if we understand that it is just one tool in a larger arsenal to provide a superior educational experience, and that our teachers are continually trained to use.
The pandemic will continue to disrupt education for a while. But learning losses do not have to be inevitable, especially if every educator believes their learners can succeed, and they are empowered with the right tools and resources to drive student achievement and growth.