Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the current educational crisis is no exception, says Joseph Gerassi, Executive Head of Redhill School.
Below he shares his "radical solution" to recovering the teaching and learning time that's been lost so far since the pandemic began.
As an educator, I am conscious that it may take us years to truly understand what learners worldwide have lost to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. It may also take the education system years to recover.
Across the globe, there are mounting concerns about lost learning, social and emotional scars, declining attendance, and rising drop-out rates. And then there are the conditions unique to South Africa, which has multiple and complex challenges, not to mention ever-widening educational disparities.
Yes, I am the Executive Head of Redhill School, but my interest in education should and does extend beyond the independent school environment.
Hence, I am proposing what I believe is the most reasonable and responsible solution to our current education crisis as an educator first.
In the absence of any workable solutions from the government, here's what I propose. Let's remove Life Orientation (LO), plus one other elective subject from the Grade 10, 11 and 12 curriculum burden.
In doing so, we can 'buy back' over 200 hours of contact teaching time per year within the school day.
Flaws in the comprehensive recovery plan
In an article titled, "The 2020 School Year Is Not Lost Yet", Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education (DBE), referred to a comprehensive recovery plan on the part of the DBE.
The curriculum was reduced and reorganised for completion in 2020, but in January 2021, 40% of principals reported that they had not completed most of the trimmed curriculum for most subjects.
Given the recent third wave and an uncertain future, the total number of days that schools will be closed during 2021 is unknown. Nor can we be sure of the quality of engagements in school and how individual learning recovery will occur.
Education economist Martin Gustafsson has estimated that children in "the lower socio-economic groups" could have lost almost 65% of their contact school days.
If there's no urgent recovery of these learning losses, fewer learners will leave school with the skills and knowledge to access further learning or find an appropriate place in the labour market.
This is something South Africa cannot afford. If our country's education ship was sinking before the pandemic, the ship is now sinking and on fire.
What are we going to do to reclaim the lost learning?
An educational crisis demands radical thinking
The government's answer has been: Trimmed curricula. More lessons. Extra lessons. This is not feasible. Our learners and educators are already overwhelmed. We are in an educational crisis, and crises demand radical solutions.
Removing LO plus one other elective subject, from the Grade 10, 11 and 12 curriculum burden would 'buy back' 6 hours of weekly teaching time without affecting school fees, educators' jobs, or learners' university readiness.
Before you gasp in horror, you should know that I have taught Grade 10 Life Orientation for the past five years. It is not a subject with which I am unacquainted. In my opinion, it is not mission-critical at Grade 10, 11 and Grade 12 level – not when the ship is burning.
Intended to encourage "the development of a balanced and confident learner who can contribute to a just and democratic society, a productive economy and an improved quality of life for all", LO is one of four fundamental subjects required for the National Senior Certificate and compulsory for learners in Grades 10, 11 and 12.
Is it working? Has LO proved to be a successful platform for the counselling of young adults? Is it sufficiently relevant to help learners live meaningful lives in a society that is so rapidly transforming?
My proposal is not, however, an indictment of LO as a subject. Rather, it is a suggestion that we take a radical step to "limit the range of disciplines that students can specialise in, in order to ensure sufficient depth of understanding" (Dixon, Janks, et al., 2016), like universities and many international secondary schools do.
When a ship is sinking, it is prudent to throw some heavy, but not mission-critical, items overboard to lighten the load.
Looking at the international model
On examining the senior secondary curricula of Australia and Britain, it becomes clear that we may require our Grade 11 and 12 learners to study too many subjects.
In the senior secondary Australian Curriculum for Year 11 (Grade 11) and Year 12 (Grade 12), there are 15 senior secondary subjects in 5 categories: English, Mathematics, Science, History and Geography. Learners need to choose only 5, one from each category.
In the UK's Year 13 (Grade 12), students take the A-level exams essential for university entrance. During this 2-year programme, students specialise in 3-4 subjects relevant to the university degree they aim to complete.
Contrastingly, in South Africa, to receive the National Senior Certificate, learners must study 7 subjects, including two compulsory South African languages, either Maths or Maths Literacy, Life Orientation, and three elective subjects.
'Buying back' teaching time and qualified teachers
In our South African high school timetable, English, Afrikaans or isiZulu and Maths or Maths Literacy occupy 4.5 hours each per week, and the three elective subjects occupy 4 hours each per week, totalling 25.5 hours of contact time. Life Orientation occupies an additional 2 hours per week.
If only 5 Grade 11 and 12 subjects were required, the education system would be able to 'buy back' 6 extra hours a week, potentially plugging 90 minutes into both Maths and English and 60 minutes into each of the other 3.
Importantly, this time would fit into the school day, not elongate it. Elective classes would become smaller and more manageable. And, importantly, no educators would be retrenched (because there would be no effect on school fees); in fact, educational and human resources would become richer in a country where we do not have enough qualified teachers.
A long-term solution
It may already be too late for those in Grade 11 and Grade 12 in 2021, but ours is not a short-term problem. A long-term solution is needed, and it must go beyond "add to classroom time" or "cancel the October school holidays".
Does anyone have a better idea of how to buy back what we have lost this year? If so, I would love to hear it.
Share your stories and questions with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
Don't miss a story!
For a weekly wrap of our latest parenting news and advice sign up to our free Parent24 newsletter.