Leveraging off Covid – is there a silver lining for education?

School Child

2020 was a nightmare year for almost all sectors of the economy, and education was certainly not spared the onslaught. It is against this backdrop that we are allowing ourselves to consider if the Covid-19 cloud may have created a unique silver lining for the country.

Covid-19 has impacted on education in a number of significant ways. First, there are the obvious school closures. By most estimates this has resulted in a loss of about 82-87 days (Spaull, N. et al 2020; NIDS-CRAM Wave 2) for all grades that were not open (grades 1-5 and 8-10) in 2020. Ordinarily there are approximately 200 school days in South Africa’s schooling calendar, meaning that about 40% of time was lost. Given the number of variables at play related to Covid-19 (largely around vaccine roll-out and efficacy), it is guesswork at best to determine whether or not 2021 will see similar numbers. But it can be safely assumed that we will continue to see significant school disruptions.

In our education system, time for effective teaching and learning is absolutely vital and at this point we simply do not have enough of it. Without going into the details here, there are a number of factors outside of actual school closures that lead to additional losses of learning time (e.g. teachers being infected and away from work, varying levels of parental/community involvement in education). This presents an educational crisis, but may also provide an opportunity and compulsion to do something radically new.

A recent working paper developed for the National Planning Commission (NPC) examined the progress in the education sector against the National Development Plan (NDP). The paper reported significant progress towards some indicators, such as access to Early Childhood Development (ECD) services and tertiary education. However, amongst others, the paper made two significant findings: “while progress has been made with respect to improved education outcomes, key education indicators point to South Africa being behind other middle-income countries…[and] South Africa is unlikely to exceed 60% of learners achieving minimum competency levels by 2030 [measured against the NDP target of 90%]”.

The paper further states that on some education indicators, South Africa performs at the level of low-income countries. Because of the complexities associated with improving learner attainment, it is no surprise that gains against targets that speak to “access and participation” are improving, and it is feasible that we will meet these targets (undoubtedly a significant achievement). The attainment of basic literacy and numeracy skills targets, however, are much less likely to be reached. These are fundamental to a learner’s success and will have a large impact on how we measure the improvement of the system as a whole (as well as South Africa’s economic growth in the long-term).

The pandemic has highlighted critical inadequacies across the system. Elements such as adequate infrastructure and teacher provisioning are key in determining improvement, but also the quality of those improvements. Basic infrastructure and adequate teachers were inextricably linked to the ability of schools to reopen or implement alternative strategies for learning (e.g. social distancing, virtual learning).

The 2016 PIRLS results stated that 78% of learners cannot read for meaning. While this is indicative of the health of the entire education system, these learners were largely concentrated in the poorest 80% of schools. These are the same schools that have had the greatest difficulty in implementing Covid-19 protocols and returning to the classroom (virtual or otherwise). For these schools, every change or “improvement” in the system may only serve to compound their problems rather than move them into the “radical new”. Any improvements to education must have the ability to impact the 80% at the same – if not a faster rate – as the rest of the schools.

Defining the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the context of education

It is widely accepted that the world is currently in the early stages of the 4IR. This is underpinned by a number of technologies, such as ubiquitous high-speed internet, Artificial Intelligence, big data and cloud computing. These are merely the technologies that underpin 4IR, but they are not the 4IR. Instead, 4IR is a significant change and departure from old systems of industry. The skills that industry demands are changing rapidly, and there is also a shift in the way that we interact with the world around us. This should be accompanied by a drastic change and realignment of education – the design and implementation of a fundamentally new model. Unfortunately, we are not seeing this happen at scale – not in South Africa and not across most of the world.

Many educationalists and other interested and well-intentioned parties, including the Department of Basic Education (DBE), have played around with ideas of increased reliance on technology to bridge gaps created by Covid-19. Broadly speaking, there are two technology camps that exist: there are the optimists that aim to “leapfrog South African education into the 4IR” by investing in tech infrastructure (devices, connectivity, and software), and the pragmatists that are using whatever is available to access the greatest number of learners. Both of these are reactionary camps, and both are potentially missing the greatest educational “trick” of the 21st century.

Further, Covid-19 highlighted that there is no so-called “leapfrogging” without getting the basics right. A commonly held position is to hold back from pursuing 21st Century education before the basics are in place, while others argue that these basics are inherently built into 21st Century skills. What we propose is that regardless of which side of the argument one sits, intentionality is key.

Imagining the radical new

Ordinarily, it is not in the DNA of social systems to drastically depart from the old and into a wild new. Such change rarely, if ever, happens. But what if we imagined that it were possible?

What if we reimagined subject matter? We know that there are parts of the curriculum that are desperately outdated and need to be trimmed, and we also know that there is new subject matter (such as digital skills and ethics) that need to be introduced into the curriculum as part of education’s response to what is happening in the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that “everything must go” but some things clearly need a rethink. There should not be such a chasm between the real world and the “education world”, and the longer curriculum takes to align to the 4IR reality, the greater that chasm is going to become.  

What if we imagined new ways of teaching and evaluation? Most classrooms are still teacher-centred; orderly classrooms, teachers teaching in front of a chalkboard and students learning/listening. There are movements around the world towards more student-centred classrooms; noisy and collaborative classrooms with much more engagement where teachers play a facilitator role. But what if we pushed this even further? What if we imagined a whole new classroom that is exclusively a collaborative space for learners? A classroom that is directed by learners and their interests (within a framework of subject matter that is facilitated by the teacher). What if at the end of the period (week, month, year), the output that is “marked” is not how well a learner scores in an exam but rather something that they are able to produce of value; a critical thought piece about engaging with others in the digital realm, a piece of software that helps to increase user security or an activity that can reduce their environmental impact?

What if we reimagined an actual school-leaver? At present schools do not effectively produce school-leavers as much as they produce tertiary-entrants. Learners that complete Grade 12 generally have to go into (usually very expensive) tertiary study before entering the job market or starting a business. We need a lot more young people who exit the schooling system (either with a matric certificate or even before that) with the ability and pathways to thrive in the world that do not require extensive tertiary study. What might this look like? For example, a modular approach to post-school skills development could allow young people to generate income – and contribute to South Africa’s growth – much easier and sooner.

In addition, we may be heading into 2022 needing to drastically trim curriculum as the consequences of the potential knock-on effect of lost schooling time is at best unclear. Covid has already kickstarted a vast reimagination of industry and the world of work, while the trajectory into 4IR has been accelerated. With this as a backdrop, industry’s demands on education are going to be more profound and challenging than ever before. We also know that education is not in a position to meet these demands with the resources at its disposal (teachers, infrastructure, technology). This presents us with a challenge on all fronts that may provide the motivation and impetus for doing things entirely differently. This is the critical “opportunity” Covid-19 has presented us with.

What is South Africa doing in response?

There are a number of significant changes that the DBE is currently undertaking in pursuit of a version of the “radical new”. These changes seek not only to improve the quality of education in general, but also to develop a learner with the ability to pursue the opportunities and navigate the challenges that the 4IR presents.

In the main, these fall into three broad categories. First, curriculum development, which broadly includes 21st Century skills and competencies, basic literacies, the decolonisation of the curriculum, and the development of skills in response to the needs of the economy (e.g. vocational skills). Second, teacher development, which includes teaching for 21st Century learners, a focus on basic literacies, and the use of ICT to improve teaching and learning. Third, capacitating the system to deliver, which includes putting the appropriate systems, processes, and technological infrastructure in place to support the delivery of quality and relevant education.

The DBE is at different stages of implementation and development for each of the above categories, but most are currently in early-stage development or being implemented through small scale-pilots that have not yet reached system-wide implementation. Broadly speaking, there is a commitment to each but the level at which they have been clearly articulated varies greatly.

Striking the balance

South Africa is not going to drastically reimagine a new curriculum and pedagogical approach in 11 months, and given the complexities of the system this would in fact not be in the best interests of the country. Rather, we need to occasionally walk through the wildly imaginative to reshape our paradigms and remind ourselves that we are not limited to a predetermined educational script. Covid-19 is showing us doors that we could explore and through that exploration there may be aspects of education that we could rally behind to realise certain changes. South Africa’s “radical new” will likely be significantly milder than what we have allowed ourselves to imagine above – at least in the short to medium term – but without intentionally addressing present inequities, we will continue having multiple and vastly different realities (whether “radically new” or not) within the system, and miss the opportunity for these new ways of learning to be become social and economic drivers.

Additionally, the system is large and complex and intentionality presupposes large systemic change that encompasses initial teacher education right through to education support structures and what eventually transpires in the classroom. Without a comprehensive and collaborative plan that takes a phased approach to implementation, we will continuously see change happening in small pockets unable to move the entire system – islands of innovation in a sea of mediocrity (or worse).

What is the role of social investors in this space?

One of the most important learning points from the health system’s response to Covid-19 is the potential to produce a working model for public-private partnerships to accelerate socio-economic development goals. The first sparks of this model can be seen in the private sector’s continued and effective support to increase the capacity of the health system, but its true measure may be the national vaccine rollout strategy. This centralised model seeks to leverage partnerships to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine. While there are still many unknowns, it certainly looks like this will play an important role in making sure two-thirds of the country receive equitable access to the vaccine. The success of the plan will hinge largely on the implementation modalities to ensure effective execution.

While there is nothing currently in the education system that is directly comparable to the vaccine rollout plan, an important consequence for social investors is the need to reimagine programme implementation modalities and impact. The significant changes that are currently taking place in the system will require support for both small and large-scale pilot sites – in partnership or collaboration with government – in order to begin to inform the radical new. Of course, there is much room to support various “traditional” interventions that focus on the basics as these remain core to the development of the system. However, there is a greater need than ever before for courageous social investors to proactively ensure their strategies are more intentionally aligned to national imperatives and strategic frameworks. Similar to the health system’s response to Covid-19, while each stakeholder plays an important role, impact can be accelerated through collaboration driven by a clearly defined North Star.

We need serious “collective and collaborative” efforts in bringing about national change. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the ability of large systems to pivot in response to the country’s needs and that any “leapfrogging” that we might seek to accomplish relies heavily on the ability to implement effective public-private partnerships to support and accelerate national priorities. Social investors focused on education must play a critical role on pushing this agenda forward in 2021 and beyond.

By Riyaadh Ebrahim and Siphumelele Lucwaba

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