A chance for slower kids

2019-06-18 16:28
A new proposal by the Department of Basic Education seeks to automatically progress all pupils in foundation phase.

A new proposal by the Department of Basic Education seeks to automatically progress all pupils in foundation phase.

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They're the building blocks for a person’s life, and the crucial phase for a child to begin understanding of the world.

The foundation schooling phase — grades R to 3 — is when children make the transition from playing with and understanding physical objects to grappling with abstract concepts like numbers and words.

It’s the years when expression is encouraged in a child, and while failure isn’t judged using the same metrics as latter-year schooling, children are sometimes kept back when they are seen to not have developed as their peers.

This holding back can allow a child another shot at getting up to speed with their peers, nipping in the bud potential future difficulties, like not being able to keep up when schooling becomes more intense in later years.

But a new proposal for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) wants to force “automatic progression” of pupils in foundation phase, curtailing the possibility to allow pupils to repeat under any circumstance.

According to a presentation by the DBE last month to interested parties, the department is reviewing its progression and promotion policies and says its experts overwhelmingly believe that “it does not make any educational sense” to make young children repeat a grade.

This has since caused deep concern among education analysts and unions, who believe this could rob pupils of an opportunity to right certain wrongs before it was too late.

The DBE’s presentation said their experts believe pupils in foundation phase who repeat “gain absolutely nothing” and making a child repeat a grade gives them a “powerful early signal of failure” which lasts for life.

School. Photo.Ian carbutt

The DBE said early dropouts was a predictor of school dropouts and absenteeism in later schooling years.

In the proposal, pupils will be promoted automatically and will continue to be monitored throughout the foundation phase to ensure they are developing as they should.

“Appropriate interventions should be put in place to support every learner to achieve the curriculum requirements so that there is a smooth transition from grade to grade,” the presentation said.


You can send your child for school readiness tests before enrolling them in school. It is recommended that at least two years of preschool is important before starting school.

Here are some tips to help your child develop their foundational skills.

Language skills:

* You can exercise this skill by, for example, giving your child a sheet with pictures of different animals and asking them to colour in the ones whose names begin with a certain letter.

* Then you can give your child a sheet with different objects drawn on it and ask them to identify their uses. For example, give them a sheet with a dog, chair, and car, and ask which one is used for sitting.

* Another exercise would be to show them different animals and ask what sounds they make.

Number skills:

* Give your child a sheet with a number of repeating objects and ask them to count how many times one specific item appears.

* Give them a sheet with, say, seven ribbons on it and ask them to only colour in three.

* Give them a picture that has numbers on it, where the numbers correspond with a colour. For example, a photo of a house where the house itself is numbered as 1, the roof is numbered 2, and the windows are numbered as 3, and they all correspond to a different colour.

Visual skills:

* Give them a sheet of different sized cars and ask them to draw a circle around the biggest one.

* Ask the child to do “spot the difference” exercises.

Fine motor skills:

* Ask the child to, using a pencil, follow a complicated, winding line.

* Ask the child to do “join the dots” exercises

Cognitive development:

* Colouring exercises.

* Give the child a sheet with different coloured circles and ask them to identify the green one, for instance.


Unions and teaching organisations have expressed concern about the proposal, and have called on the DBE to have a wider consultation before making any decisions.

School. Photo.Ian carbutt

Basil Manuel, the executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), said the policy always encouraged foundation phase pupils to be pushed through, but allowed for flexibility. “Now is that flexibility being taken away? The issue is that the international standard says a child must be progressed with their age group … but whatever happens must be in the interest of the child and school.

“The DBE can’t enforce this blindly. It can cause a child to fall further behind. Class sizes are too big for a one-size-fits-all policy.”

Manuel said he had it on good authority that the policy will go out for public comment.

“We welcome that approach because it says the Ministry [of Education] is willing to listen.”

Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich said their sister organisation, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), wanted to be consulted on the policy.

“We believe any education policy should be in the interest of pupils, so this policy is a real concern and it could contribute to pupils’ challenges. In foundation phase, pupils need a lot more assistance. They can’t be passed along when they’re not ready, so this [policy] is not a good idea.”

Ehrenreich said unions were having discussions about the policy. He said they would be willing to look at the DBE’s rationale for the policy.

The Governing Bodies Foundation, however, said the issue was far more complex, stressing the need for proper systems to help children who are slower than their peers — something many public schools lack.

The organisation’s Dr Anthea Cereseto, while having not seen the proposal, said: “Researchers say that a child is retained in Grade 2 or 3 in the hopes of getting better, but they usually just end up repeating the year as they did because there are no sufficient systems to grow the child.

“If a child fails Grade 1 or 2, they still need proper support. What is needed is for more effective teaching. Many children just sit in class not learning anything.

“To me, a child progressing with their age group is good for human development, but they should be able to repeat if they can’t cope. But, importantly, they need the necessary support in the next year [when they repeat].”

She said: “If you can’t convince me that the following year [when repeating the grade] will be better, then I’m not convinced that they should be kept behind.”


Just how important is foundation phase learning in South Africa? Well, the statistics suggest it is of vital importance.

Research by Statistics South Africa says 63% of children do not attend a day care centre, crèche, early childhood development centre, nursery school or pre-school. Only 37% of children aged zero to four years old attend an educational institution, while 63% do not. One notable critic of the DBE’s proposal is Nikki Bush, an author, teacher trainer and human potential expert. Her Facebook posts criticising the proposal have gained much attention, and she told Weekend Witness that she has received feedback from members of the education fraternity about the DBE’s proposal.

“Learning perceptual skills is like putting bricks [in place] to make a wall. You need a lot of bricks in the foundation of the wall,” she explained.

“If bricks are missing, then the wall will be weak — and possibly fall.

“The critical years for foundation are in those first seven years of development,” she said. “People often confuse growing physically with development, and we need to differentiate between that.”

Bush explained that a child interacting with toys, blocks and play-dough in pre-school was important as it allowed them to get a sense of the physical world via the five senses. “In Grade 1, children start to read and write, but this is not learned in a vacuum. They need those building blocks. This allows them to understand abstract concepts like numbers.”

Bush said it was generally tough to pick up these concepts in just one year in Grade R, especially when a child has not gone through an effective preschooling year. “Plus many children aren’t learning in their mother tongue. So there’s little wonder and there’s learning gaps.”

She said not allowing children to repeat a grade during foundation phase could mean they are pushed along despite not being ready for further grades. “So if the DBE feels there are too big classes in foundation phase, by not allowing children to repeat, they will only be moving the bottleneck from Grade 1 to Grade 4.”

Bush said children should be able to repeat, but stressed they would also need additional support and remediation — something that poorer schools lacked.  Bush conceded that a child’s esteem could take a knock if made to repeat a grade, but said: “It’s not ideal, but if done properly then it could be the best thing in the long term.

“Stopping them from being allowed to repeat is just a short-term solution. We need to ask: is there another solution?” — Additional reporting by Parent24.


Educational psychologist Anel Annandale says there are six things to consider when checking whether your child is school ready.

• Pencil grip: When the child masters the dynamic tripod pencil grip, they are able to write with the adequate speed, using fewer muscles. Exercising fine motor capabilities can help get a better pencil grip.

• Shape recognition: The basis on which learning to read and mathematical concepts are based.

For example, knowing what a triangle looks like allows the child to make sense of what the letter “A” looks like.

• Auditory analysis and synthesis:  Being able to recognise and say the actual sounds of a word. This allows them to read, write and spell.

• Emotional readiness: If the child isn’t emotionally ready, they will not be able to perform. Parents should intervene before the child is in Grade R if the child is seen to be struggling socially. Some signs are being responsible enough to do work, the willingness to tell the teacher if something is wrong and conflict resolution skills.

• Classification: Ability to understand, for example, that dogs, cats and elephants fall under the group of animals. Start simple — fruits, vegetables, animals — before moving on to more complex groups.

• Bilateral integration: the child’s ability to co-ordinate both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled and organised manner. For example, holding the paper properly with one hand while writing or cutting with the other hand.



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