According to Statistics South Africa, the country has more economically inactive people than those making up its labour force. Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba, International Organization of Employers (IOE) vice-president to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and chairman of Productivity SA, explains how to change the status quo and prepare South Africa for the new world of work.
According to the Wave 5 National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS- CRAM) study published in July 2021, learning losses from March 2020 to June 2021 in no-fee-paying schools – which make up 80% of South African schools – are estimated to be 70% to a full year of school. However, as Zenex Foundation CEO Gail Campbell argues, targeted interventions can go some way towards addressing cumulative learning backlogs, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
With teaching and learning no longer confined to the four walls of a classroom, virtual learning became a reality for learners across the country. In terms of their Covid-19 Comprehensive Pupils Support package, the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and various partners undertook to provide educational support through integrated online and broadcast platforms. As disaster management legislation compelled radio and TV channels to increase their educational programming, this was an obvious choice to reach 13 million children in lockdown. Programming was rolled out on three SABC TV channels, and 13 radio stations, as well as a YouTube channel.
MultiChoice made its Mindset educational channel, Channel 319, available on DStv Catch Up. DStv also partnered with Africa Teen Geeks and the Sasol Foundation, rolling out South Africa’s first Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Lockdown Digital School with the help of government (virtual classes for pupils across all grades are recorded and posted on MsZora, an AIbased educational platform). KykNET introduced maths and science programmes for grade 8–12 learners through Klaskamer 10 (DStv Channel 145).
The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies zero-rated content and websites for the education sector, with the approval of the DBE and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). This included DBE and Provincial Education Departments (PEDs) websites, local websites (including commercial websites) offering free access to educational content resources, websites of educational institutions registered with the nine PEDs, and those of educational institutions accredited by Umalusi.
Vodacom saw a surge of registrations on its e-School platform. Prior to lockdown, the platform reached around 900 000 learners but an average of 90 000 new registrations over three months pushed the total number of registrations to 1 158 577 by the end of May. MTN, which assists grade 10, 11 and 12 students through the e-learning platform of the Siyavula Foundation, zero-rated more than 100 websites to assist learners. Telkom introduced an online learning portal for primary and high-school learners available through the ed-tech platform Lightbulb Education (see case study on pages 186–187). ORT SA launched ORT2Connect the Unconnected, a drive to help learners cross the digital divide, and urged the public to donate devices they were no longer using. Project Isizwe implemented a programme where schools could register for the ‘No Child Left Behind’ programme and donors could ‘donate’ home Wi-Fi to the children of families living in low-income communities.
A comprehensive attempt to ‘save’ the school year has been commendable, yet Arthur Goldstuck, head of technology market research organisation World Wide Worx, says mobile network operators could have gone further to zero-rate all educational sites and services meeting the minimum requirements, like having an ac.za address. Until there is greater parity in a deeply unequal sector, it will not be possible to redesign the curriculum to integrate digital processes into existing systems, which will become an eventual necessity for the future world of work. In the meantime, some companies are seeking possible solutions – information technology company EOH, a technology partner to the Solidarity Fund, is collaborating with risk management company Risk Insights to introduce a globally recognised digital education solution for the country. Their iON solution was originally developed to serve mass education needs in India.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused severe disruptions to education. When lockdown was first implemented in March 2020, more than 14 million learners in South Africa were temporarily out of school, and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) expects that 75 000 grade 7 and 12 learners could drop out this year. In addition, despite a trimmed curriculum, around 30% of last year’s work has been carried over to 2021 and 2022, meaning that schools will have to find ways to cope with the backlog.
On 25 February 2021, responsible business consultancy Trialogue hosted a webinar looking at how corporate social investment (CSI) education programmes have adapted to the strictures, and the long-term shifts that will result from the pandemic. The panellists were Kanyisa Diamond – senior project manager of education at Old Mutual Foundation, Neptal Khoza – head of CSI at Capitec, and Sarah Mthintso – executive of CSI at the Telkom Foundation.
Two snap polls (below) conducted at the start of the webinar indicated that 51% of respondents felt their biggest challenge had been shifting their programmes online, and this adjustment continues to be the most significant (57%), ahead of putting safety measures in place for the continuation of in-person programmes.
Early pandemic lessons
The three panellists outlined some of the challenges they faced when the pandemic hit, and what adaptations they had been forced to make.
Capitec engaged with all its stakeholders and implementing partners to come up with a contingency plan. The bank decided to postpone its face-to-face teacher development and leadership programmes, although it was able to migrate its learner mathematics support online. A major challenge was adapting and responding quickly to new budget requirements from initiatives outside strategic focus areas.
Old Mutual was in the process of developing a new strategy for education prior to the pandemic, but it challenged its existing partners to rethink their programmes and modes of delivery and data costs for beneficiaries was budgeted for. The focus was shifted to assist the DBE with Covid-19 recovery and remote learning strategies. Key learnings included being able to respond to changing needs rapidly while being mindful of how reporting and governance could be affected.
Covid-19 afforded Telkom the chance to accelerate the deployment of technology in schools – a strategy already in play, and in which Telkom has invested more than R170 million over the past four years. Digital skills were migrated online, and a learner dashboard was developed to track the progress of more than 7 000 learners. Crucially, psychosocial support for learners, teachers and school leaders moved into the virtual space, through zero-rated platforms and a Childline chat box.
Strategies to assist learners, parents and educators
Mthintso said that the rollout of ICT infrastructure is not happening at the desired pace, but there are ways to narrow the digital inequality gap, like ensuring children can still access educational content through offline services. “We zero-rated more than 900 URLs last year – not just education sites but also government websites where learners could access information, for example about Covid-19,” she said, adding that more learners have access to devices than ever before. She also pointed out that technology is a critical enabler that can prepare learners for the rapidly changing world of work.
Diamond said that the issue of instructional design is paramount. “We need to find and offer alternative teaching and learning methods so as to optimise the little time learners have to access the curriculum and learning opportunities available,” she said. “How do we make sure that, when we impart knowledge, it is absorbed and retained quickly? What other mediums can we use to reach learners, other than textbooks or teachers?” With a dearth of quality online content, it is important to develop visually appealing, practical content, as well as content in children’s home languages. “African languages should be seen as an asset to heighten and optimise learning,” she said. Most important, however, is designing programmes “that can achieve impact but are done effectively without burdening the system further”.
For Khoza, digital support for parents is another important issue. “Many parents might not know this new world, and we need platforms to support them so they can support their children,” he asserted. With maths performance continuing to drop, programme design needs to focus on the needs of the learners, and collaboration is critical. “No single person has the silver bullet, but through collective efforts we can see meaningful impact,” he said, pointing out that there are creative ways to jointly roll out complementary programmes.
Safeguarding mental wellbeing in the sector
With anxiety, depression and other mental wellness issues coming to the fore during the pandemic, an emerging theme is how companies are providing psychosocial support to their staff, partners and beneficiaries. Mthintso stressed the importance of holistic support for learners and how it affects a company’s ability to achieve desired outcomes. Telkom’s collaboration with Childline has helped young people countrywide, going beyond the reach of the company’s original programming.
Khoza indicated that Capitec has collaborated with Community Keepers in the Western Cape – an organisation that provides therapeutic counselling and workshops for learners, educators and parents at its 28 partner schools in marginalised communities. In addition, the Principals Academy Trust, a longstanding Capitec partner, sees retired school principals offering extensive mentorship and emotional support to existing principals.
Old Mutual runs a leadership programme through Seed Educational Trust that empowers future leaders to cope with complex and stressful situations as a matter of course – but Diamond acknowledged that more attention should be given to Covid-19-related stress in future programmes.
Partnering with the DBE
Given the heightened importance of collaboration in recent months, the panellists offered advice for organisations wishing to partner with the DBE. Diamond said it is important to understand protocols and hierarchies, and to engage at provincial as well as national level, as this is ultimately where budgets and strategies are implemented. “Who you speak to is very important. Start at the top and engage with Deputy Director-Generals (DDGs) and provincial heads of department,” she stressed. “Understand the strategic direction of the department and don’t push your own agenda – rather look for points of alignment and where you can alleviate some of their pressure points.”
Mthintso agreed: “As much as we want to make a difference, we are not government; we are a partner that seeks to support what government is doing in the education space,” she said. “Your posture should suggest partnership and co-creation. Understand the level at which you need to engage – who is the stakeholder and how can you leverage their support?”
Khoza added that finding a ‘disciple’ who can drive one’s organisational message with the DBE is vital, along with signing an MOU that has measurable outcomes. “You’re not there to solve the department’s problems, but to complement their initiatives,” he said.
Technology has the potential to transform the education sector, but low digital literacy and a lack of internet-enabled devices hamper online participation. The pandemic has underscored basic inequality in the education sector: while distance learning and virtual classrooms have become the norm for learners with PCs, tablets and smart phones, there is an opportunity cost for learners who are not digitally enabled. On 30 September, the second wave of the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) indicated that learners in South Africa will have lost 40% of school days in 2020 because of the pandemic.
According to Project Isizwe, only 10% of South African homes had affordable fixed internet in 2019, and the country’s 7.5 million lower-income earners pay 80 times more for internet access than their better-off counterparts. Tim Genders, COO of Project Isizwe and Chair of the Wireless Access Providers Association, asserts that data is the raw material of education and the impact of data price discrimination will lead to even greater inequality in the future. Rolling out fibre and fixed wireless technology to homes will bridge the gap to enable distance learning in the short term and ensure digital access for everyone at equitable cost. Rollout to 12 million homes over a decade would cost around R50 billion.