If basic skills are not acquired and learners are pushed through school, it can have dire consequences for their future development, write Tholisa Matheza and Dianne Hendricks
While tabling her budget vote in May last year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga proposed a progression policy which would see struggling learners from grades R to 3 (Foundation Phase) be advanced through primary school without having to repeat a grade, even if certain educational milestones had not been achieved.
Motshekga said “education experts have opined on this matter, and the ... message is that it does not make any educational sense for young children aged six to 10 years to repeat a grade. According to the experts, the children who repeat ... gain absolutely nothing.”
She indicated that learners who were failed suffered emotionally.
The Foundation Phase represents the building blocks for later learning.
When schooling is viewed from this perspective, the validity of criticisms of the proposal become apparent.
While there is certainly value in questioning how educational milestones are defined and implemented (currently resulting in a testing culture in schools), the point remains: in this phase it is critical that children acquire the fundamentals of the core subjects in order to successfully proceed to higher grades.
Mathematics, science, literacy, comprehension, listening, speaking, reasoning, viewing information, and the like, are vital to learner development at that age.
And more so for the greater levels of complexity and nuance that come with each subsequent grade.
If these basic skills are not acquired in this phase and learners are pushed through the system, it can have dire consequences for their future development.
The problems manifested in learners who don’t meet academic criteria for passing a grade, but are nevertheless deemed fit to progress, will remain, if not be exacerbated.
All it does is pass the problem of poor performance on to the Intermediate Phase (grades 4 to 6), then the Senior Phase (grades 7 to 9), and so on until we as a country decry poor performance in matric.
The issue is not only that learners will suffer. Teachers in later academic phases will be forced to spend crucial teaching time on compensatory efforts to ensure their learners have the knowledge and skills to effectively complete their current grade.
The result is likely to create more burdens in an already burdened education system.
Currently, learning and content backlogs in grades 8 and 9 in mathematics, science and English are becoming more and more of a challenge.
This is largely because poor performance in these subjects results from a gap in foundational knowledge and understanding of content.
Language permeates all teaching content and defines what happens in the classroom between learner and teacher.
It is a vital mechanism for learning in any grade, as is the space and environment to acquire this ability, which is what happens most effectively in the Foundation Phase.
There is indeed something to be said for the emotional impact on a young child because of staying behind a year as their peers move on.
Being labelled a failure is something that can cause stigma and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What we need to emphasise to children is that it is acceptable to have to go back and understand something properly rather than be promoted in name but lacking in real substance.
The problems in learning and schooling that create scenarios where young children need to be automatically promoted should instead be addressed at the source.
Early childhood development generally needs more attention and investment.
We need more educators, who are better trained to work with young minds at this critical phase, and skilled at dealing with the complex challenges that present in learners who encounter problems at this phase.
For example, there are few or no support mechanisms in place for differentiated reading instruction, which assumes that all learners progress in ability and skill at the same space.
Teachers need to be better capacitated to understand and work with learners in the Foundation Phase in line with the realities and different contexts encountered; the way home language and instructional language mediates learning; the class size and how much attention a learner gets; and developmental challenges created by socioeconomic factors; as well as psychosocial influences on health and wellbeing.
Play-based learning and whole-child development has long been understood to be crucial for schooling, yet we ignore it – this kind of training is lacking or absent in our schooling.
The focus should be on understanding how learners learn and on Foundation Phase teaching that equips learners to deal with the demands of schooling.
If learners have to repeat a grade in the Foundation Phase, let the teaching be of such a nature that it addresses differentiated learner needs without assigning negative values to those variations in learning styles and ability.
Let the school system not be punitive and remedial, but developmental and nurturing.
Learners cannot simply be advanced through grades to address systemic bottlenecks without consequence.
Education at this stage should do what it is meant to: provide the basic knowledge and skills to become successful in later school grades, in further education and training, in a career, in life.
The automatic progression policy is an attempt to deal with legitimate schooling challenges. As such, there is value in it.
But automatic progression comes with its own challenges and consequences, intended and unintended, which will create further problems.
These challenges will continue to require application and solutions, which the policy doesn’t adequately address; the factors causing high repetition rates will remain.
The focus should be on addressing problems in the Foundation Phase and finding ways of supporting teachers in the higher phases to identify and support learners with differentiated learning needs.
Matheza and Hendricks are education specialists in the Schools Development Unit at the University of Cape Town