Is the 2020 School Year Lost? – The DoE Responds

In Response to the Prof. Jonathan Janssen article the DoE writes:

THE 2020 SCHOOL YEAR IS NOT LOST YET, THE DEPARTMENT OF BASIC EDUCATION HAS A COMPREHENSIVE RECOVERY PLAN.

 By Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education

There is currently much information and policy advice relating to schooling and the COVID-

19 pandemic are being circulated on social media and other platforms. There is, understandably a lot of interest and anxiety regarding schooling in the country post the lockdown and the focus on what will happen to the Grade 12 learners, in particular, given the final National Senior Certificate Examinations.

Some advice to the Department of Basic Education came from Stellenbosch University Professor Jonathan Jansen who declared that “the 2020 school year is over”. This bold assertion made by Prof Jansen in a newspaper article is extremely unfortunate, to say the least. After declaring the school year lost, he then continues to make a range of proposals that should be considered by the Department of Basic Education. It is clear from his article that Prof Jansen has not been part of basic education and he doesn’t seem to be aware of the strides that we have made in reducing the inequities that exist in our society and country.

It is also important to acknowledge that having had schooling disruptions before in different parts of the country and places such as Merafong having been even longer than all lockdowns across the globe so far, we were able to pick up the pieces and support the affected learners. We ensured that they are not disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country and some actually came out among the best performing learners in Grade 12 in the country.

In 2016 in Vuwani, the disruptions in that part of the country were also protracted. The lockdown there was in fact for more than 3 months. The learners did not go to class but again we were able to implement a recovery plan that assisted the learners to get back on track. Yes, it requires dedication, innovation, commitment and some real sacrifice but it was done. Again, we received the full cooperation of all stakeholders which we have in this instance.

We agree with Prof Jansen that our reality is that for many learners, the real benefit and impact for them is the classroom where our strength lies. We are even prepared to share key aspects of the Comprehensive Framework of the Curriculum Recovery Plan that we have put together with Provincial Education Departments which we are consulting with stakeholders on.

Now let’s examine Prof Jansen’s “proposals” one by one.

“One, scrap the academic school year; even a “trimmed down” curriculum will soon be meaningless for the school system as a whole.” No. It’s too early to scrap the school year in fact that thought had not even occurred to Minister Angie Motshekga. It is actually laughable that this kind of suggestion would come from an academic who occupies a position such as his. As indicated earlier, it is not the first time that the basic education system has experienced such disruptions. At the time of his writing or when the article was published the basic education system had lost about 12 days. Even with projections, a constructive message should not be one to call for the “scrapping of the school year”.

“Two, pass every pupil in grades 1-11 for organisational reasons”; Again, we disagree. It is a wrong message to be conveying to learners that you can simply progress to the next grade. This suggestion exposes the fact that the Prof has no clue of what is contained in the Department’s recovery plan.

“Three, abandon all marks from continuous assessment for a simple reason – it was not continuous.” It is common knowledge that the COVID-19 situation has caused disruptions in the school calendar but you cannot abandon the work done and what still needs to be done. It is a cop out to suggest that the hard work of learners and teachers should be simply “abandoned” when creative ways can be found to incorporate the work into the overall performance of learners.

“Four, if Grade 12s do write the terminal exams, reach an agreement with provinces and their schools on what parts of the curriculum will be covered and a set new examination papers;”

Losing days in the Grade 12 calendar will undoubtedly impact on examination results.

However, insofar as days lost, this will pull everyone’s results down in a similar fashion, there would not be that much unfairness within the class of 2020. The larger risk is perhaps a loss of comparability with the results of other years, something that could disadvantage the class of 2020 in, for instance, the university admissions process. But at Umalusi, adjustment for the class of 2020 could deal with this. Perhaps the most concerning inequality is that learners from quintiles 1 to 3 schools who perform relatively well, and who compete with quintiles 4 and 5 learners in the university admissions process, will be disadvantaged by the lower levels of access to and use of modern technologies allowing for teachers to remain in contact with learners during the closure.

“Five, negotiate with universities to start three weeks earlier and have matric teachers and lecturers work together on a bridging curriculum for students in particular disciplines, for example, economics for those doing a BCom, or physics and chemistry for those doing a BSc.”

Post-school institutions and employers do not look at the NSC of just one cohort at a time. They consider the education of the candidate over a period. After all Grade 12 is the final year of a 3 year National Senior Certificate that’s why provisional admission to institutions of higher learning is based on Grade 11 results. With many days missed, and given that one is dealing with a national disaster, an argument for a special Umalusi adjustment would be very strong. But there is no need to trim down the curriculum or even tamper with the question papers.

“Six, do away with the June and September holidays of 2020 and start school earlier in 2021.”

The school calendar is being revised and once published via the government gazette, it will show that indeed all possibilities were considered. The amendments to the school calendar require a policy process in which all stakeholders are consulted to ensure that the exercise is inclusive and covers all bases.

“Seven, provide massive emotional and psychological support for teachers and pupils. There will be weariness and wariness that should not be underestimated. Our biggest mistake would be to treat children as cognitive machines that can simply be switched on again after the trauma of Covid-19.” Correct. We agree on this point. It is not just learners and teachers but every worker in the schooling system will need support. A new normal will have to emerge on how we work in the basic education sector.

There is no doubt that the impact of the coronavirus on the basic education sector will be long lasting and that adjustments will need to be made on how schools are managed.

All stakeholders in the basic education sector have been working together, tirelessly and around the clock, in planning for whatever eventuality and that we are indeed ready for the reopening of schools.

It is unhelpful to fuel the anxiety, panic and confusion among learners and parents in particular by suggesting that the school year is lost already. There is so much more work to be done in this year already.

Perhaps Prof Jansen could assist by leading discussions within the higher education sector on how it should be gearing up to support the basic education sector and make a meaningful contribution to education as a whole. At this moment though, an article is simply not enough, especially from an academic.

Let us work together to defeat the coronavirus. Stay home and stay Safe!