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UCT Online High School pupils on suicide watch over results as row with parents erupts

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File image.

Published Jan 7, 2023


Johannesburg - A row has erupted between UCT Online High School and a group of parents following the year end results of some learners, two of whom are now on suicide watch. The parents have consulted with lawyers and said they are planning to sue the school after many Grade 8 learners failed.

They are also demanding that the school fees for 2022 be returned to them. The drama started on December 23 when parents received their children’s reports. They said they were unable to reach staff at the school to answer their queries following the release of the results. In a startling revelation, parents claimed they were able to access the online scripts of the learners and found some unmarked or partly marked. Parents also claim that their children were allocated marks for subjects they did not take in the 2022 academic year.

Parent and founder of the social media platform, Coloured Girls Rock, Shantelle Engelbrecht, whose son was in Grade 8 last year, said many were drawn to the school because of its name, but added that what they were promised and what they received were two very different things.

“The first few months were good. But I noticed a change. The children didn't have lessons. It was like distance learning. They basically taught themselves and they started falling behind. I paid R2 095 per month for my child to teach himself. It’s shocking that so many learners failed,” she said.

Independent Newspapers spoke with the parents of a 14-year-old learner who is on suicide watch. No names will be used to protect the identity of the young woman who managed to get hold of some of her mother’s tablets and planned to take them. But in a fortunate turn of events, the mom’s keen eye noticed the missing tablets and she was able to talk her daughter down. The stay-at-home mother said she had tried to contact the school several times to talk about her daughter’s progress, but to no avail.

“They always only wanted to speak with the father as he was listed as the primary caregiver. We are married, but I had no power. This was such a horrible experience for us. I have never seen a zero on any of my children’s reports. There are no recorded lessons so that kids can go back should they not understand anything. We were only informed in term four that there was a problem with our daughter’s marks,” the mom said.

“We were told our daughter had 31 outstanding tasks which would make up 60% of her final mark. We were shocked but we sat with her and completed them all. I even checked up with the school when I emailed the tasks and now she’s failed,” said the distressed father.

The couple said they could initially access the scripts, but the UCT Online High School portal for results and marks now shows an error message.

“We have a plan for our daughter. She’s not going back to that school,” the couple said.

Another mother said her 17-year-old son suffered an asthma attack after he saw the results.

“He’s been off asthma chronic medication since the age of 12 and before he even started high school and now he’s supposed to be going for Grade 12. I couldn’t even take a screenshot of the report due to that emergency and now we can’t even access the portal.

“I only took his word and how it has affected him. He battles to breathe, but more than anything because he chose the school he feels bad, saying I should have not helped him and I should have left him to die. He says he’s a failure and he has nothing to live for. He talks suicide language we can’t leave him alone, not at all,” the mom said.

Executive head and chief academic officer at UCT Online High School, Banele Lukhele said the school started with 5 507 learners but only 4 483 learners completed the academic year. The school also underwent a massive restructuring process in the middle of 2022, resulting in many staff leaving.

“Provisionally, and bearing in mind that our appeals process is not yet completed, we are seeing good results achieved by our Grade 10 and Grade 11 cohorts. Many of our Grade 8 and Grade 9 learners have also done very well. During the course of 2022, we had a retention rate of about 81%. Learners withdrew for various reasons, including online schooling not being a good fit or being accepted into a different school,” she said.

Lukhlele would not be drawn on claims by parents that they saw unmarked scripts on the school’s portal.

“All appeals are currently being investigated so I am not in a position to confirm or refute this allegation. Per communication to guardians, they will receive feedback on each case. Should this be true then the necessary steps will be taken to remediate this. Every learner and guardian has the opportunity to appeal and we have been clear in communicating the process for lodging appeals. We urge guardians to make use of our appeals process, rather than spreading unverified information via social media,” she said.

Luhkele said she did not have final figures for the Grade 8 results, which is where parents claim the biggest problem lies.

“Given the fact that we are still processing appeals, I do not have this final number. However, provisionally, the majority of our Grade 8 learners performed well last year. We are looking forward to seeing the improved performance as they continue their academic career at UCT Online High School,” she added.

Lukhele appealed to the parents of the learners on suicide watch to work closely with the school.

“The wellbeing and mental health of adolescents and young adults is a matter of global concern. In this context, we appreciate that end-of-year examinations are a cause of additional stress and anxiety, including a heightened risk of self-harm. In addressing this dimension of online learning, our approach is always one of support and prevention. Our Support Coaches work closely with our dedicated Student Wellbeing Team,” she said.

Lukhele was not aware of any legal process against the school.

CEO and founder of Valenture Institute, Robert Paddock said: “Starting a new school is a massive undertaking, particularly in a year when we were emerging from the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes, combined with other issues, such as escalating load shedding. We’ve done remarkably well and less than three percent of our learners have lodged appeals against their end-of-year results, which is much the same as any other school.

“Our team will have all appeals resolved within the next few weeks, and before we start the new school year later this month. We take the mental health of all our learners very seriously and I echo the plea from our Executive Head of School that anyone who has any concern about the wellbeing of any one of our learners should contact our dedicated Student Wellbeing Team so that full support can be provided.”

The Western Cape Education Department’s ( WCED) Bronagh Hammond said UCT Online High School is not managed by the WCED and is not an ordinary public school. UCT and Valenture Institute manage the UCT online high school.

The Saturday Star