Learners aged six to ten years old who may be struggling between grade R and 3 may soon be pushed through primary school without repeating a grade, as Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, proposes a new progression and promotion policy.
In her basic education budget vote speech for the 2018/19 financial year, Motshekga explained,
“A number of education experts have opined on this matter, and the overwhelming message is that it does not make any educational sense to make young children aged six to ten years, to repeat a Grade. According to the experts, the children who repeat, on the whole, gain absolutely nothing.”
Motshekga also suggested that repeating a grade does nothing but negatively influence the individual on an emotional level.
“For many affected children, repetition is a powerful early signal of failure – a signal that lasts through the individual’s life.
To improve the efficiency of the system, we are also focusing on Grades 9 to 11, as repetition and drop-out rates are also high in these Grades.”
While Motshekga says the proposal was made based on the research from and opinions of education experts, many have said the change is a mistake that will have dire consequences far beyond the foundation phase.
What is causing so many children to not be able to cope?
Creative parenting expert, Nikki Bush, took to Facebook to comment on the department's “quick fix solution” of “automatic progression” for the foundation phase. She references the country currently experiencing the highest level of repetition of grade 1 at 15-20% and explains “the question isn't how do we get rid of this bottleneck, but rather, what is causing so many children to not be able to cope”.
“The answer is not rocket science,” she says.
“For school readiness children need to acquire strong perceptual skills in the preschool years through concrete learning and guided play experiences that will provide them with the foundations for numeracy and literacy to enable them to cope with the demands of Grade R. Problem: most children in our country do not have the luxury of a preschool education and so the 6 year school readiness journey is squashed into one year of grade R. It is no longer a miraculous and exciting learning journey, but is rather a destination to an assessment that many of them are failing.
From grade R to 3, children are moving from the concrete learning phase to abstract where they can grasp symbols such as letters and numbers. They are learning to decode the world, to read. This is learning readiness for the transition to reading to learn and reading for comprehension in grade 4.
The no repeat policy will shift the bottleneck to grade 4 where remediation will become ever more difficult as children then have different subject teachers, and those most affected will be expected to apply skills they haven't yet mastered I believe this is most unfair on the child and will have lifelong ramifications on their self-esteem.”
Above, Bush highlights that there is no real solution in simply shifting the years learners will be allowed to repeat. Come grade 4, without the foundation phase and barely understanding the ABCs of grade R to 3, they’ll struggle to grasp concepts of a much higher standard, inevitably leaving them to then repeat later grades.
And while this is evidently unfair on the children of South Africa, teachers will also struggle to cope with classrooms filled with children who are struggling. Angie Motshekga’s proposal to focus on grades 9 to 11 could therefore very well be in vain, if learners do not have the basics to get them to that point – even though there is already a policy in place that pushes learners through to the next grade after repeating a grade once – and teachers are overwhelmed and unable to focus on so many learners in need of extra attention.
Bush therefore says the key to the high level of repetition is a combination of 3 things: education at home in which parents focus on school readiness, qualified staff at the foundation – particularly preschool – phase, and an actual focus on every child getting a quality preschool education.
“It makes my teacher heart sad”
A few teachers weighed in, commenting on Bush’s post. Many agreed calling the move by the department “sad”, emphasising the importance of the skills children learn in the foundation phase.
"It makes my teacher heart sad. So sad. Poor kids. So thankful mine are passed that stage. But the kids I teach are not. Preschool is the foundation, yet the student teachers we see in schools now have NO clue about perceptual skills and the pre-reading and -writing requirements. There is NO creativity anymore and worksheets galore. Our breakdown is starting in teacher training nowadays... It's all really so sad." – Lauren
"I was a preschool teacher for 20 years, teaching all the different levels during those years. We did [an] awesome job, using a curriculum developed in 1992. We experienced the development of the little ones. We saw the progress and how they gained skills. I teach grade 3 now where most of the learners come from home or a crèche. I see the lack of skills and how they struggle and how poor they perform. A very good preschool system from 3 years old is needed. Play and development without worksheets are needed to improve this backlog. Include this area in the department, pay these teachers well, train them with excellence and this will sort itself. There is hope!" – Mariana
It’s clear that learners need to acquire a particular set of skills and capabilities before progressing and having to take on more challenging concepts and ideas. Without this foundation phase, we’ll never be able to reach the 27 schooling goals we’re set to achieve by 2030.
Bush put it perfectly when she spoke to Radio 702:
“If you think about a wall... if it is missing certain bricks in the foundation... ultimately, that wall will fall down.”
What are your thoughts on the proposed no repeat policy? Are children who repeat between grade R and 3 gaining "absolutely nothing"? Or should we be focusing more attention on the foundation phase?
Tell us and we may publish your comments. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.