Joseph Gerassi
Joseph Gerassi

Education crisis as the already sinking ship turns into an inferno

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 3, 2021

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Joseph Gerassi

CAPE TOWN - In the absence of any workable solutions from the government, here’s what I propose.

Let’s remove Life Orientation (LO), plus one other elective subject from the Grade 10, 11 and 12 curriculum burden.

In doing so, we can “buy back” more than 200 hours of contact teaching time per year within the school day.

As a teacher, I am conscious that it may take us years to truly understand what pupils worldwide have lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021.

It may also take the education system years to recover.

Yes, I am the executive head of Redhill School, but my interest in education should, and does, extend beyond the independent school environment.

The reality remains that, when schools were closed and then partly opened, many children living in under-resourced households did not have a quiet workspace, desk, computer, or internet connection – nor parents with the time or experience to supervise learning.

The interruption of in-person instruction and the variable efficacy of alternative forms of education caused widespread disengagement with learning, especially for disadvantaged pupils.

Education economist Martin Gustafsson has estimated that children in “the lower socio-economic groups” could have lost almost 65% of their contact school days.

If there’s no urgent recovery of these learning losses, fewer pupils will leave school with the skills and knowledge to access further learning, or to find an appropriate place in the labour market.

This is something, in South Africa, that we cannot afford. If our country’s education ship was sinking before the pandemic, with our children not knowing enough Maths or Science to do the jobs so critical to our economy, the ship is now sinking … and on fire.

The government’s answer has been: Trimmed curricula. More lessons. Extra lessons. This is not feasible. Our pupils and teachers are already overwhelmed. We are in an educational crisis, and crises demand radical solutions.

My proposal is that we remove LO, plus one other elective subject, from the Grade 10, 11 and 12 curriculum burden.

This would “buy back” six hours of weekly teaching time, without affecting school fees, teachers’ jobs, or pupils’ life/university readiness.

Before you gasp in horror, you should know that I have taught Grade 10 LO for the past five years.

It is not a subject with which I am unacquainted. It is also not, in my opinion, mission-critical at Grade 10, 11 and Grade 12 level – not when the ship is burning.

My proposal is not, however, an indictment of LO as a subject.

Rather, it is a suggestion that we take a radical step to “limit the range of disciplines that students can specialise in, in order to ensure sufficient depth of understanding” (Dixon, Janks, et al, 2016), like universities and many international secondary schools do.

When a ship is sinking, it is prudent to throw some of the heavy, but not mission-critical, items overboard to lighten the load.

In our South African high school timetable, English, Afrikaans or isiZulu, and Maths or Maths Literacy occupy 4.5 hours each, per week, and the three elective subjects occupy four hours each, per week, totalling 25.5 hours of contact time. LO occupies an additional two hours per week.

If only five Grade 11 and 12 subjects were required, the education system would be able to “buy back” six extra hours a week (two from LO and four from the elective), with the potential to plug 90 minutes into both Maths and English, and 60 minutes into each of the other three.

Importantly, this time would fit into the school day, not elongate it. Elective classes would become smaller and more manageable.

And, importantly, no teachers would be retrenched. Given that LO teachers require a second subject to qualify, they could assist in those subject classes or be upskilled to teach the second subject.

Many teachers and pupils are currently buckling under the indirect burden of the pandemic, which has brought with it longer days and weeks, lost opportunities to play sport, minimal downtime, and lack of access to friends and family.

As such, any proposed solution, that is at the expense of social and emotional well-being, is neither sustainable nor acceptable.

In this, I point specifically to the recommendation by DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga, that October holidays be scrapped so “children are given as much time to learn as possible”.

Deservedly, this proposal has so far been met with outrage.

To return to my analogy of the sinking ship – when the ship is on fire as well, it is not enough to throw items overboard.

We must also put the fire out. It may already be too late for those who are in Grade 11 and Grade 12 now, in 2021, but ours is not a short-term problem.

A long-term solution is needed and it must go beyond, “add to classroom time” or “cancel the October school holidays”.

Does anyone have a better idea of how to buy back what we have lost this year? If so, I would love to hear it.

* Gerassi, the executive head of Redhill School, has extensive experience in preparing young people for the world they will one day lead, and has spent his 30-year career constantly re-imagining and re-examining educational best practice.

Cape Times

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