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Reshaping the education system by addressing learning backlogs

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.

Learning Losses. Recovery. Trimmed Curriculum. Catch-up. Curriculum Coverage. Curriculum Acceleration. Learning Backlogs. These terms are dominating the education discourse as we determine the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the education system and begin to plan for recovery. Recovery programmes must address historical and cumulative learning backlogs prevalent in the system – they should be more than catching up the aspects of the curriculum that were not covered during periods of school closures – as outlined in the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) Revised Curriculum.

Prior to Covid-19, many studies showed that the performance levels of the South African education system were poor, with learners not meeting grade-level expectations in various subjects. Learning losses resulting from school closures and the ongoing rotational system have merely exacerbated existing learning backlogs. While our education system faces multifaceted challenges, we work from the premise that learning backlogs can be addressed with appropriate targeted interventions in tandem with curriculum delivery to improve learning outcomes.

Understanding learning backlogs

The curriculum is prefaced on the principle that learners have a minimum level of mastery of the content of each grade to grasp the content of the succeeding grade. Learning backlogs, which are evident in learning outcomes, indicate that learners have not attained the minimum levels of competency. Simply put, a learning backlog is the difference between what learners are expected to know by the end of a grade and what they actually know. With this inadequate grasp of content, they progress to the next grade, hence the notion of cumulative learning backlogs.

Since 2015, data from evaluation studies across various urban and rural contexts – many commissioned by the Zenex Foundation – have highlighted the nature and scale of learning backlogs, particularly in mathematics. Mathematics is a hierarchical subject, and number sense is a key foundational competency. Children need to move from concrete counting to understanding how and why an algorithm such as addition or subtraction works; this is central to the development of abstract algebraic reasoning. A recent Zenex review of learner performance in mathematics shows that learners enter high school in grade 8 without the requisite foundational knowledge of number concepts and measurement concepts such as linear, area, and volume.1

In literacy, the low learning outcomes have been well documented. Mastery of reading is a foundational competency expected by the end of grade 3 if a learner is to access learning in higher grades. Reading competency in the earlier grades has a multiplier effect of improving decoding and word recognition, vocabulary, and comprehension. Reading, coupled with writing, is critical for consolidating literacy proficiency. Zenex Foundation interventions found a high correlation between an increase in the volume of learners’ written work and overall language performance among primary-school learners.

Learning backlogs are not a built-in deficit in learners. It is not about a small catch-up of sections of the curriculum or the notion that this is missing content that can be taught or re-taught. It is important to make the point that learners in both poor and wealthy schools can suffer from learning backlogs. However, learning backlogs of learners in poor schools tend to be deep, sustained and more permanent, whereas learning backlogs of learners in wealthier schools tend to be easier to remediate through targeted interventions, as they are often identified early.

What causes learning backlogs?

The causes of learning backlogs are complex and multifaceted and extend beyond the educational system. Learning backlogs are deeply rooted in the structural and systemic problem of poverty and unemployment. This is a primary inhibitor to children’s development and ability to access learning opportunities. Oxfam, using data from UNESCO, shows that in developing countries, a child from a poor family is seven times less likely to finish secondary school than a child from a rich family.

Data from Statistics South Africa’s Living Conditions Survey informs us that in 2014/15 approximately half (49%) of the adult population was living below the upper-bound poverty line of R992 per month. According to the 2020 World Bank Poverty & Equity Brief, 55% of the South African population (30.3 million people) were living in poverty at the national upper poverty line, while a total of 13.8 million people (25%) were experiencing food poverty. Unemployment hovers at an estimated rate of 34.4%. This impacts on the health and nutrition of learners, resulting in stunting of 27% of young children. That the pro-poor education funding policy and the school-based nutrition programme, aimed at mitigating the impact of poverty, are reaching over nine million learners is commendable.

Poverty, coupled with inequitable access to quality early-grade programmes, including grade R, has a compound effect on young children. According to researchers Katharine Hall and Winnie Sambu, over 21% of children live with an adult caregiver other than their parents and 42% live with single mothers.2 The daily grind of work and continuous effort to escape poverty, means that early learning opportunities in the home are stymied. The lack of reading material in homes – the South African Book Development Council estimates that 58%
of households have no access to books – limits stimulation of early learning. Educators bemoan the lack of parental involvement in schooling. However, the cycle of deprivation and poverty makes it difficult for parents to participate and is somewhat understandable. We know that parental support can boost learning and despite the challenges we need to find innovative and creative solutions to involve parents.

As a result of poverty and lack of early learning opportunities, many learners enter school without the necessary emergent literacy and mathematics competencies needed to access the grade 1 curriculum content, which creates a vicious cycle. It is not surprising that, compared to more resourced wealthy schools, performance is significantly lower in schools serving poor communities.

The learner progression policy further exacerbates the problem. Learners are routinely progressed from one grade to the next, resulting in cumulative backlogs that progressively inhibit acquisition of new knowledge. This in turn creates the systemic challenge of school dropout, particularly in the early grades of high school, and has a longer-term impact on achievement in matric. We know that proportionately the number of learners taking mathematics is declining as is the quality of passes. This limits access to meaningful post- school learning, limiting opportunities to contribute to individual and national prosperity.

Of course, there are also in-school contributing factors to learning backlogs. School functionality is positively correlated with improving learning outcomes. More time on task and tracking curriculum coverage and mastery are also necessary conditions for improvement. Much has been documented on teacher content knowledge and competency to teach in large, highly differentiated environments. South Africa has an ageing teaching population, and we know the limits of the historical apartheid legacy of poor-quality teacher training programmes.

Lest we wallow in despair at these multifaceted systemic challenges, we can take comfort that there is considerable evidence that quality education tackles poverty. Quality public education is often described as ‘the Great Equaliser’ because of its transformative power.

How to address learning backlogs

Foundational competency interventions

Prior to the pandemic, several studies pointed to low levels of curriculum coverage, with educationalists lamenting the dense and extended curriculum. Covid-19 created an opportunity to trim this curriculum. Moreover, the trimmed curriculum included time for revision in the first term of the school year. This is certainly a step in the right direction. We firmly contend that we also need targeted interventions to address the magnitude of learning backlogs. As part of curriculum delivery, these interventions should address specific foundational competencies.

The Zenex Foundation continues to pilot such interventions, for example reading catch-up for grade 4 learners, improving number sense understanding with mental maths, targeting English comprehension at grade 8, dealing with specific maths foundational concepts in grade 8, and cementing basic operations competency in grade 4. Diagnostic testing and ongoing tracking of performance is a common feature across these interventions.

Improving literacy

Literacy forms the foundation of all learning. Prior to Covid-19, we faced alarming evidence that only seven out of ten children can read for meaning in any language by the age of ten. Core to improving literacy is adopting a structured approach to teacher professional development, which has shown promising results. Secondly, providing learners with access to books – books in learners’ home language, especially increasing access to African language readers, books that are contextually relevant to learners, and books for leisure reading to inspire the imagination of young children – is key.

However, given that children enter grade 4 without basic reading mastery, specific catch-up interventions are also needed. Interviews with teachers demonstrate their difficulties in meeting targets of Annual Teaching Plans while grappling with the problem of backlogs. Curriculum coverage is a necessary but not sufficient condition to improve learning outcomes. Learner understanding and mastery over content is a more important indicator than quantitative indicators of coverage.

Working directly with learners

The extent of learning backlogs requires us to address the problem from two fronts: supporting teachers and working directly with learners. Wave 5 NIDS-CRAM research indicates that access to online learning, reaching less than 10% of learners, brutally exposed the inequities of the country. However, there are several learner-based technology solutions that are showing signs of addressing key foundational concepts in language and mathematics. These have been offered as part of the school day as well as after school.

Working with learners outside of school is referred to as extended or expanded learning time. Non-profit organisations have a long history of providing after-school programmes covering academic support, psychosocial support, sports, and so on. Is it not time to institutionalise support to schools from the most disadvantaged areas by offering a range of learning opportunities outside of the school day?

Teaching assistants

The Presidential Youth Employment Initiative offers an opportunity to support the education system to deal with learning backlogs, particularly at the Foundation Phase – the proviso being that these assistants must be in a school for a full year at least and must be trained and upskilled. The assistants can help with classroom management, assist the teacher with small group teaching, with training support, structured reading remediation initiatives, and support mathematics through games, puzzles, and activity worksheets.

Learning backlogs are the most significant barrier to improving educational outcomes in South Africa. As we move forward with our educational investments, we must give increasing attention to understanding the extent of learning backlogs and how to navigate them through ongoing engagement and collaboration with the broader education community.


  1. The paper ‘Backlogs in Senior Phase Mathematics’ will be published by Zenex in 2022.

  2. Hall, K., and Sambu, W. 2018. Demography of South Africa’s Children. South African Child Gauge. Accessible at: demography%20of%20South%20Africa%27s%20children.pdf


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