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Reflections on learner progression and learning backlogs



Some reflections on learner progression and learning backlogs as we end a tumultuous schooling year – a focus on longer-term issues to consider.

Today (15 December) is the official end of the 2020 school year, a period that has intensified the challenges for education in South Africa. Learner performance is in the spotlight as the year ends, not only because of concerns about the effect of COVID-19 on an already challenged system but also because of the release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 findings which show that South Africa is performing well below the international benchmark. Over the past few weeks, there has been much debate in the media and within the broader education community on learner progressions. Should learners be promoted from grade to grade in spite of the diminished curriculum coverage that has occurred this year and regardless of performance? The Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) director general, Mr Mathanzima Mweli, has recently addressed parliament about automatic progression in the foundation phase and a special condonation dispensation has been put in place across the system. While it is pleasing to note that recent circulars from the DBE provide recovery guidance to schools for 2021, both teachers and school management teams need to be supported intensively by funders and NGOs as addressing learning losses and backlogs will take much longer that one-year.

South Africa’s educational system is beset with issues that drive its underperformance including the poor reten­tion of learners in the system (which means that a worrying number of young people leave the school system before matric), the low enrolment numbers and participation of learn­ers in maths and physical sciences (key subjects for economic develop­ment), and the declining qual­ity of passes in gateway subjects. One of the issues that underpins these is that of learning backlogs. Backlogs start in the early grades and become pervasive by the time learners reach high school — and it is not possible for learners to achieve significant performance gains without addressing them. In particular, in subjects such as maths and physical sciences, where learn­ing is cumulative, learners cannot gain access to new and more com­plex curriculum knowledge without foundational knowledge being in place.

We know that COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues and further exposed the existing inequity in our education system. Pre-COVID, many research studies had already highlighted the huge learning backlogs in the system.  The many Zenex Foundation evaluation studies have shown similar. 2020 has seen a devastating impact on a sector already under immense pressure. There has been a significant loss of academic school days, a deeply concerning consequence in any event but especially in a country where so many children are constrained by learning backlogs. Last week’s NECT conference highlighted a study (albeit in a small sample of 100 schools) that described the low levels of curriculum coverage achieved this year. Public schools have been forced into rotational systems where grades take turns to attend school. In the context of schooling for disadvantaged and poor learners, who do not in the main have access to books in the home let alone online learning content, and where there is not a strong culture of the parent or caregiver supporting learning, this effectively means no learning on the days that learners are not at school. This, on top of the loss of learning time during lockdown, is catastrophic. Children across the country have now lost significant time in their academic programmes, and only a small percentage of South Africa’s households have the technology and connectivity that allow them to make use of the most common solution promoted in the education sector, namely online learning. This pulling apart of the sector between those with access to learning and those without has been further exacerbated by the impact of poverty on learners at risk, who also lost access to the school nutrition programme during the hard lockdown.

With the release of TIMSS, an assessment system that South Africa participated in at the grade 5 and grade 9 levels, the country’s educational performance has come under sustained scrutiny. TIMSS compares the educational performance of countries, and shows how a country’s educational achievements change over time in the key subjects of mathematics and science. South Africa has not performed well historically in international benchmarking studies and the 2019 results have confirmed similar. Although South Africa has made some progress off a low base, it is still performing well below the international benchmark. The media has highlighted this and the upcoming release of matric results will herald a further media focus on South Africa’s education system.

A debate that has been raging is that of the special condonation dispensation offered this year by the DBE in a bid to prevent a high number of learners from repeating the same grade next year.  Of concern is that, if learners are promoted from one grade to the next without having mastered the content and foundational competencies of preceding grades, surely the cognitive backlogs that progressively inhibit the acquisition of more com­plex competencies will be intensified. While this decision of the DBE’s has been controversial, it makes sense not to hold children back unnecessarily. Research shows that it does not help to do so and that doing this would just create a blockage in the system.

What has happened in 2020 is no fault of school children.  Rather, the impact of COVID-19 calls for a focus on addressing learning backlogs with a simultaneous focus on the delivery of the grade curriculum. This is no mean feat for any teacher. However, what is indisputable is that learners must be supported and given every opportunity to learn. Learning must continue in order to ensure the building of the skills needed for South Africa’s future.

What is more important to address are the illogical practices in the current structuring of the education system. The DBE, recognising the loss of school days this year, appropriately extended the school year but what was perplexing was that schools were required to finalise assessments to the Districts by the end of November. It has become common (negative) practice that learners do not attend school after examinations. An assessment of learner attendance in some of the schools supported by the Zenex Foundation has showed that learner attendance significantly reduced after examinations.  Thus, planned curriculum catch-up programmes after examinations could not be delivered.  In hindsight, the extension of the school year should also have included a revised assessment timetable for December.

We need to be thinking differently. It’s clear that 2021 should not be treated as a normal year and that catching up learning from the loss of learning time in 2020 will require effort and time. Some issues to consider include:

  1. increasing learning time by lengthening the school day and year;
  2. developing more programmes to support teachers with the dual classroom practice of addressing learning backlogs/education recovery and the grade specific curriculum;
  3. providing teachers with additional support (while the initiative to provide 300,000 teacher assistants to schools for a three-month period will provide some level of support, we need to consider a more cost-effective longer-term solution especially in the early grades); and
  4. piloting low-cost technological solutions to address learning backlogs.


Gail Campbell and Barbara Dale-Jones


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