The glaring class divide in South Africa’s education system that was exposed by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic should “generate political will in South Africa to overhaul our schooling system and demand a better deal for the poor”, says University of the Western Cape Professor Ruaan Maarman.
Speaking as matric exams kicked off across the country, Maarman said this year’s Covid-19-enforced disruptions had laid bare the existing well-documented troubles of the South African schooling system, while adding a range of new challenges.
“The 2020 matrics are writing exams under more scrutiny and stress than previous matric classes – and that raises a number of questions about their performance and their futures,” said Maarman, who is the education faculty’s deputy dean for research and postgraduate studies.
He said the lockdown, which compelled schools to shut for much of the year, had unveiled the differences in the country’s capacity to deliver basic services such as education.
“Some schools switched over to online learning to support pupils early in the lockdown, while other schools came to a complete standstill. We must think about the pupils in the deep rural areas, the pupils whose parents lost their jobs, the pupils who had to take up jobs to support their families, the expectations of families on the pupils and, therefore, the holistic impact of the pandemic on the matrics. There was also much absenteeism from pupils as the school year lost its rhythm suddenly and for a long period of time.”
Maarman said the impact of the “haphazard schooling year” would be pronounced among poor pupils, and South Africa would see how different provinces were able to deliver valid and reliable examinations based on their relative wealth.
“We’ll learn that as the exams progress. The confusion on how to approach the schooling system in the months of May and June demonstrated that education stakeholders have different views on ‘good’ schooling. Certain provinces [for example, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape] have a longstanding record of underperformance on many levels of education. So I don’t see them now suddenly outperforming themselves and doing a good job of preparing pupils or delivering a good examination,” he said.
He stated that, because of the expected low performance from some of provinces, he expects an artificial upgrade of marks.
The deepening economic disparities in the country – where more than 30 million people live on less than R992 a month – were “not morally acceptable”.
This translates directly into the schooling experience, as most pupils live in very poor conditions.
“At the same time, we have pupils who receive a ‘first-class’ education throughout their 12 years of schooling, but they are a small percentage. So most pupils do not receive schooling that puts them in good standing for their futures after school,” said Maarman.
The health crisis had exacerbated the situation and South Africa had produced “many lost generations of matriculants” who have swelled the ranks of the unemployed. He added that the damage to the academic year “will leave deeper challenges on the matrics in terms of their examination marks and future prospects”.
“And the jury is still out on all the related fallouts from 2020 on the matrics, other grades and schooling as a whole,” he said.
On the upside, the crisis had brought with it a lot of resilience from teachers and pupils in difficult conditions to push through with the school year.
“We can reward them by using this disruption to develop a better – and fairer – education system that helps our young people build their futures,” he said.