Closing public schools will widen inequality gaps, say experts

24 July 2020 - 16:42 By Kgaugelo Masweneng
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the suspension of classes in public schools on Thursday. File photo.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the suspension of classes in public schools on Thursday. File photo.
Image: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo

The government’s decision to halt public schooling for a month while allowing private schools to stay open will see the inequality gap widen, an expert has said.

The children of parents with financial means, who would typically attend urban private schools, would not lose out, but underprivileged children and those at rural schools would suffer.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Thursday night that all public schools must close for a month, from July 27 to August 24. Matric pupils would get one week off, and grade 7s would be out of school for two weeks.

There has been polarised debate over the move, with government both slated and praised for the decision.

Jessie-Anne Bird, a Johannesburg-based educational psychologist, said the level of unpredictability was going to leave pupils stressed. “This is an incredibly difficult decision. Everything is at risk at the moment and it’s easy to judge, but I’m sure the decision was not taken lightly.

“However, the assumption that private schools will handle this better will perpetuate inequality. Whether schools are opened or closed, it matters how this is communicated as it may cause anxiety.

“Children thrive in stable environments. It is incredibly stressful for them when things are unpredictable,” Bird said.

Dr Sadi Seyama, senior lecturer at the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education leadership and management, said the assumption that private schools were better suited to handle Covid-19 was flawed and divisive.

“It’s questionable whether private schools in crowded areas and areas with low household incomes are prepared. Does this mean all of them are ready? It’s divisive, and I don’t know if that’s the kind of message we want to send. The government needs to make sure private schools are also well resourced.

“This could also be a decision based on the reality of the service in these school, but this could seem like the children in these schools don’t matter. The decision has major implications on how the children will look at themselves,” Seyama said.

She said the postponement of schooling would further delay learning, but was also an opportunity to rethink the education system.

“It will take everything back. Both teachers and pupils will not be intellectually ready. They will not be able to cover what they were supposed to. We will struggle with inadequacy of foundation [knowledge]. There are negative consequences. This could take us further back in terms of catching up.

“This means the curriculum needs to be revised, address the gaps and be open to a different way of thinking. It is possible,” Seyama said.

Ebrahim Ansur, secretary general at the National Alliance of Independent School Associations (Naisa), welcomed the decision, saying many independent schools were facing uncertain financial futures as school fee collections were at an all-time low.

“We are pleased the ministry of education took favourable cognisance of the submission Naisa made, arguing that independent schools should be allowed discretion with regard to their continued operation. While we recognise the arguments for the closure of public schools may have some merit, the context and conditions under which independent schools operate demand they be treated differently.

“Most schools have implemented salary cuts for staff and there have been reports of staff retrenchments. Further closures of schools could very well result in many schools closing, with resultant job losses for teachers, and pupils having to be accommodated in already crowded state schools.

“Ordinarily, independent schools have their own calendars which they manage differently, and some  have just come back from a break. Another break would have been counterproductive,” Ansur said.

However, he admitted that rural and under-privileged schools had not been able to provide online learning because of a lack of resources, leaving these pupils further compromised and possibly not able to catch up at all.

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