Updated: Sep 3, 2019
We know that Early Childhood Development & Foundation Phase in South Africa is in a critical state with the latest international benchmark testing proving that 78% of 10 year olds cannot read for meaning in any language. This is the first opening into the discussion about Foundation Phase in South Africa and highlighting the recent Department of Basic Education proposal to introduce a ‘no repeat’ policy for Foundation phase learners in grades R to 3. This means that the learner’s will be automatically promoted through to the next grade regardless of whether they have acquired the necessary skills to proceed or not. Learners will then be required to use skills they have not yet mastered in the grades above.
The South African Department of Education has put forward a proposal to introduce a ‘no repeat’ policy for foundation phase learners in grades R to 3. This means that the learner’s will be automatically promoted through to the next grade regardless of whether they have acquired the necessary skills to proceed or not. Learners will be required to use skills they have not yet mastered in the grades above.
Motivation for this policy stems from a statement made by Angie Motshekga that expert opinions suggests that for learners between the ages of 6-10, it would do more harm than good to keep learners back even if they are not grasping the basic fundamentals before moving on to the next grade. Motshekga says that repeating these grades only impacts negatively on the children’s sense of failure which will have lasting effects throughout their lives.
The South African public have opened a discussion together with the press to find out who these experts are that have conducted the above mentioned research stated by Angie Motshekga in the Basic Education Budget Vote Speech 2018/2019.
Dr Melodie de Jager, a developmental specialist and founder of the Mind Moves Institute, gives us some food for thought in her YouTube video where she talks about the effects this policy will have and how to address the real problem at hand. Dr de Jager points out that the root of the decision for this ‘no repeat’ policy, according to documentation, comes from statistics showing the number of learners repeating Grade 1 in South Africa. Currently, 20% of learners entering Grade 1 are required to repeat the grade. This leads to problems such as overcrowding in classrooms where there are up to 70 students in a class. Teachers are overwhelmed and understaffed. She further states that repetition is the best way to learn and reinforce new knowledge. More importantly, if the learners language, physical, emotional, social, cognitive and thinking skills are not in place, the learner will battle to conceptualise and be able to read for meaning. Learners are not progressing from concrete learning to symbolic learning, and by Grade 4, learners are expected to be able to read for comprehension as it is at this stage that they begin writing examinations, mainly focusing on language and mathematics. Dr de Jager importantly notes out that the foundation education of these learners is going to directly correlate with later stability in life. Children need a solid foundation to encourage their growth and developmental autonomy throughout their lives. We need to build this foundation from preschool and facilitate learning in a symbolic way.
Creative parenting expert and speaker, Nikki Bush, has taken to public platforms to talk about this topic and initiate awareness with the goal of creating enough concern that the government will stop, think and really consider the impact of the policy they are proposing.
“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.”
“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 and future employability due to lack of fundamental numeracy and literacy.”
Nikki’s informative post on Facebook helps us to have a look at the real problems that South African education is currently facing in foundation phase, problems such as the lack of preschool education for most of South African children, a lack of sufficient and suitably qualified staff in the preschool arena as well as the lack of parental education. Parental/guardian education refers to the ways in which parents/guardians can facilitate learning and school readiness at home by reinforcing and practicing skills appropriate to the stage of development that the child is in. Parent24 notes that 50% of children have never read a book with their parents. Neglecting to encourage reading at these early stages results in a lack of reading culture later on.
Statistics released in the 2016 PIRLS study, revealed that 78% of grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning. This information, paired together with the policy set forward to address the bottleneck caused by 20% of grade 1 learners needing to repeat the grade, puts forward a conundrum that the Department of Education is going to have to inevitably address later on when those learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to be, again, robbed of their futures due to the ‘no repeat’ policy from grade R - 3. Preventing learners from properly consolidating their skills in the foundation phases, is just going to delay the problem until grade 4. How is this going to benefit the education system as a whole? Gaps in these foundations for knowledge acquisition is going to manifest itself in employability in later years.
Ian Cobishley, director of operations at Unlimited Child, states that a child’s education begins at birth and this period, until the age of six, is critical.
“We cannot try and fix their learning challenges at matric or tertiary level, but at an early age”.
Professor Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor at the University of Stellenbosch took the opportunity to express his views that the entire South African system is based on “dumbing down”, the South African government does not think there is a problem in our education system:
"Of course we must be clear: the first big problem in SA is inequality. We basically have two unequal school systems in SA. I am amazed that you can have a school with three astro turfs and a polo pool and 10km away a kid can drown in his own shit. How do we live with it? And yet the government says we are doing well because of our matric scores," said Jansen.
"Inequality is one thing, but the SA education system is also very inefficient, getting very little at the output level. For every 100 kids starting in grade 1 only 37 pass matric, only 12 go to university."
Prof. Jansen consolidates statements made by Nikki Bush and Dr de Jager by commenting, that if he were the Minister of Education, he would firstly ensure a massive investment into making sure that every child gets a solid preschool foundation. Teachers would also be retrained on how to teach. “Society benefits enormously when there is investment in human capital. If we do the basics right, the rest will follow”.
To fully understand the state of education in South Africa, Nic Spaull, a senior researcher at the University of Stellenbosch, has set out the findings from the PIRLS study in a very reader friendly way. PIRLS stands for the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. It is an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading and is administered every 5 years. The PIRLS shockingly revealed that 91% of Gr 4 learners in Limpopo cannot read for meaning with equally high percentages in the Eastern Cape (85%), Mpumalanga (83%), Gauteng (69%) and Western Cape (55%). Find his summary here.
With all this information put before us, with the knowledge of Angie Motshekga’s “no repeat policy” and with the opinions of specialists in the education field sharing what they think is going to fix the problem, right at the foundation phase, it is our obligation to the future of South Africa to consider the implications of this policy before complacently allow it to pass motion.
Cyril Ramaphosa spoke up about solutions to the problems in South African education at the State of the Nation Address:
"If we are to ensure that within the next decade, every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning, we will need to mobilise the entire nation behind a massive reading campaign. A National Reading Coalition will be launched to coordinate this national effort.”
An announcement at the SONA in Parliament this year confirmed that the government is implementing an Early Grade Reading Programme which consists of an integrated package of lesson plans, additional reading materials and professional support to Foundation Phase teachers. The President also announced that all foundation and intermediate phase teachers are to be trained to teach reading in English and the African languages, and a cohort of experienced coaches are being trained and deployed to provide high quality on-site support to teachers. If this programme is to be carried out, this could be a massive positive impact on the literacy levels statistics produced from the 2016 PIRLS study.
The South African nation is facing a problem that we need to solve at the core, which is the fact that education needs to start with building a concrete foundation in literacy & numeracy at the foundation phase which facilitates school readiness and the ability to read for meaning in at least one African language by Grade 4. As active members in our community we can start by contributing to the solution by taking initiative in the most minimal way possible. Every effort can make a positive impact on the school readiness of a child. How can us, the community, make an impactful difference? By creating a culture of reading in the community and reigniting the love for reading amongst us. Parents and guardians should be made aware of the importance of reading to young children or visiting the library. We have to take into consideration the number of parents who cannot read in low socio-economic communities, this inability to read definitely contributes to the reluctance to visit a library or engage in learning activities. Parents and/or guardians should not feel discouraged to participate because of their own education level, but rather feel motivated to strive towards the betterment in education for the future of South Africa - our youth. This is how WE can help South Africa.
There are a number of initiates around South Africa who promote a reading culture within communities. The Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu Natal is an organisation which provides home visits as a scheme where literate community members and Gogo’s visit homes to spread the message of early literacy development. They take books with them to read to the children as well as talk to mothers, grandmothers and guardians about their role in the development of their children. Apart from home visits, the Family Literacy Project have raised funds for container libraries in KZN rural communities with an overwhelming positive response of participation from families in the area.
The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy brings forward research that shows literate people have a higher possibility of improved living standards; this means better self-esteem, better health, better job opportunities, higher wages and higher rates of success in achieving a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their families. It is evident that this has positive spin-offs for both community and country. If we rob our youth of their chance to build a solid foundation in literacy, what future are we building for our nation?
As well as creating a culture of reading amongst communities, we must recognise that there is a lack of reading material/resources in African languages to facilitate these goals. We heavily thank organisations like VulaBula for their contributions to education. VulaBula provides open access readers for Grades 1-3 in African languages. It is the first graded reading programme in African languages where progression from level to level is based on the phonics of each language. Anybody can download the VulaBula books and teacher manuals from the VulaBula website. Additionally, if teachers and members of the public need a huge bulk of copies, they can purchase them at a cost online, and Molteno will deliver them within 14 days.