OPINION | The right of children to access education

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Empty school desks.
Empty school desks.
Duncan Alfreds, News24

 The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, especially when it comes to education, writes Chris Jones.

National Children's Day, celebrated annually on the first Saturday of November, aims to commemorate and highlight the progress being made towards the realisation and promotion of children's rights. 

In South Africa, we want every child to be free from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Children's rights are therefore an important part of our Constitution and have been included in Section 28 of the Bill of Rights.

There are also other legislation protecting our children such as the Children's Act 38 of 2005, which makes it a criminal offence if a person who has to maintain a child doesn't provide the child with clothes, housing and medical care; the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997, making it illegal to employ a child under the age of 15; the Domestic Violence Act of 1998, which defines different forms of domestic violence and explains how a child can get a protection order against his or her abuser; and the Films and Publications Act of 1996, that protects children from exploitation in child pornography.  

This article, however, focuses more specifically on Section 29 of the Bill of Rights which begins with: "Everyone has the right to basic education..."

Fortunately, this right was wisely secured during the current pandemic with dialogues, partnerships, and creativity to address the complexity in which the world has found itself in recent months.

Not only has Covid-19 brought massive disruption in the social and economic life of societies and communities, but also in schools.

We are currently faced with this uncontrollable wave of change, the nature of which we, at best, can try to understand, in order to guide it towards a more desirable future outcome. The nature of this pandemic is described by the Centre for Post-normal Policy and Futures Studies as:

"An era in which old orthodoxies are dying, new ones are emerging, and very few things seem to make sense."

Education was not spared by Covid-19.

Therefore, the sterling work by UNICEF in South Africa is highlighted here. In collaboration with various partners, it expanded "access to digital learning... while focusing on lessons learnt and providing links to related resources".

These efforts, in partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE), are pivotal to South Africa's Covid-19 education response "to scale up mass e-learning, online and app-based access with private sector input... to develop new digital learning content for preschool and primary students".

Strategies also include radio and TV broadcasts - especially the days on which the learners are not in school - to reach those children who do not have access to devices and the internet. The reopening of our schools, as we are aware of, was done in phases throughout the country, and due to Covid-19 fluctuations, took various steps forwards and backwards.

However, the DBE must be praised for their hybrid model, ensuring physical distancing, sanitising, and wearing masks, while 50% of learners go to school on a rotational basis, alternating days.

Access to data 

A recent UNICEF national survey shows that only 11% of young people in South Africa have access to a laptop and the internet, whilst 41% indicated the need for information on skills and training opportunities. This illustrates the need for increased access to information and data. UNICEF also supports a platform where our students can dialogue with the DBE about their learning and overall well-being. 

Partnerships have been vital in South Africa's successes in expanding digital learning during Covid-19.

The Learning Through Play (LEGO) Foundation  provided $1 million to support home-based learning from early childhood to secondary level, benefitting 7.8 million South African children. These digital resources are still being used now that the schools have re-opened.

Funds provided by the LEGO Foundation "have also enabled the design, finalisation, and hosting of ECD Mobi, a virtual resource room for parents, caregivers and educators with ideas to support their children's learning through play according to their age".

The Tshwagarano Ka Bana (Let's play, learn and grow together) series and the Active Learning@Home Programme focus on pre-schoolers, and learners in primary and secondary school respectively.

UNICEF is also supporting winter and summer school programmes for more than 150 000 secondary school learners in maths and science through a digital coaching intervention and by training learners in various technologies involving robotics and other dynamic innovations. In this way, digital literacy and learning is prioritised.

"WoZa Matric", which is broadcast on SABC 3, online platforms and radio stations, provide additional digital study materials, techniques, and psychosocial support to matriculants while they prepare for their final exams.


Unfortunately, despite good intentions, online learning accentuates inequality.

Since only a small number of households have access to computers and internet and data costs remain high, many children, especially those in rural areas, find digital learning tough. Alternative strategies are clearly needed to reach vulnerable communities.

At least UNICEF is reimagining education through new initiatives that aim to make internet connectivity and access to digital learning a reality for all children. 

Its Reimagine Education Initiative is aligned with our government's National Youth Policy 2020-2030  to empower adolescents.

It is done through digital and other 21st century skills to help open doors not only to new ways of learning, but also improved life prospects, steering a smoother transition from school to tertiary education and decent work.

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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