Learners were falling behind before the pandemic, so how can we achieve fundamental catch-up?

Learning loss. We’ve heard this term a fair amount since the pandemic began. It’s commonly understood as a specific or general loss of knowledge and skills, or a reversal in academic progress because of gaps in a learner’s education. On radio, television and in newspapers, education researchers and experts used the term to describe the impact of disrupted schooling on our country’s learners over the past two years.

Despite the uptick in the use of the phrase in public discourse, learning losses in South Africa precede the Covid-19 pandemic. For thousands of learners, school closures, absent teachers, crumbling infrastructure, extreme weather conditions, community protests and struggles to catch up to the curriculum have kept them from classes before.

In addition, six out of 10 children are considered multi-dimensionally poor; their socioeconomic circumstances affect their pathways through school, their ability to learn and access opportunities. This is evident when eight out of ten children in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning in any language. They are not fairing much better in maths either. A 2019 study found that roughly 41% of learners had basic maths skills. These statistics tell us that even before the pandemic, many children had weak foundational learning.

Without the basic skills to grasp the curriculum, many learners begin to chronically underperform for their age and grade. This is apparent in high rates of grade repetition nationally. In high school, the number of learners repeating grades more than doubles. Among learners in Grades 10-12, approximately 20% are three or more years over-age, having repeated grades. High repetition leads to learners becoming over-aged for their class, increasing their likelihood of dropping out.

Considering the complex context detailed in the preceding paragraphs, as a country, we should be looking to solutions that are bold enough to abandon pre-existing scripts. To quote education writer Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post: that which is lost cannot be found in “pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or pre-existing measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement”.

In the boldness of the author’s statement lies an invitation for public dialogue about how to change the trajectories of learners that are chronically falling behind — pandemic or not — so that they are able to keep their grip on opportunity. In the boldness of the author’s statement lies an opportunity.

Accelerated Learning programmes

In various countries, governments and civil society have turned to Accelerated Learning Programmes (ALPs) to support overage children in different circumstances with considerable success in meeting the needs of vulnerable groups and learning outcomes.

ALPs target those that are out of school or overage for their grade. Many were initiated in response to a crisis, usually a conflict, like in Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Typically, ALPs focus on primary education; the classes are relatively small; and facilitators are community volunteers who receive training. According to UNESCO, the most common rate of acceleration is for two grades of primary school to be covered by one year of an accelerated learning programme.

While accelerated learning programmes are often time-bound, they can become permanent features of an education system like in Bangladesh with the BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) model. BRAC had an interesting start; it began with a functional literacy programme for adults in the mid-1970s when it became evident that without a literate population, people were not able to take advantage of income-generating activities, public health and other social services.

Different teaching methodologies set ALPs apart from other after-school programmes, weekend classes or holiday classes. For instance, here in South Africa, the practice of Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is at the centre of the Reading for Meaning programme, initiated by the Zero Dropout Campaign and supported by the DG Murray Trust.

Reading for Meaning focuses on a child’s learning needs rather than their age or grade to support learners who missed key literacy and numeracy concepts early in life. The programme runs after-school sessions with Grade 5 learners in low-resource communities in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal by training community volunteers, known as Reader Leaders, to facilitate sessions over 16 weeks.

Partnerships are key

We can learn from these examples to develop an adaptable framework to fit the needs of our learners. Civil society should play a leading role in partnership with communities, the basic education sector and investors. To do so, civil society organisations should have the authority to run accelerated learning programmes with the necessary checks and balances in place. In addition, they should be able to adapt their approaches based on experience of how their programmes are implemented, with flexible investment from funders.

Over the years, international comparison tests have shown that a young person learning in South Africa lags those in countries with fewer economic resources. This poor performance – and the gap between the rich and poor – will continue to widen until there is greater equity in the delivery of quality public education.

About the authors:

Senzo Hlophe is Director: Strategic Operations at DGMT, Rahima Essop is DGMT’s Communications Director and Pumza Ndamase is the Project Lead for the Reading for Meaning programme.


This op-ed was first published online by the Daily Maverick on 23 June 2022. Read it here.