The learners and teachers of transitional phase grades (R, 3 7 and 12) faced unprecedented challenges this past year as schools had closed down across the country in the wake of the deadly Covid-19 virus. These grades are unique in that they are meant to prepare students for a more advanced learning environment and curriculum that they’ll face in the next phase of their schooling, be it, entry to primary, primary to secondary (high school), or secondary to tertiary. If these learners are compromised academically and psychologically, on a national scale the impact of it will be felt by generations to come.

Pre-Covid, Nokuphila Primary School in Thembisa implemented a holistic curriculum that focused on sports, art, culture, and academics to provide our learners with a well-rounded and balanced education. Nokuphila’s strategy on preparing our learners focused on three major fronts: the classroom (curriculum and learning environment); additional support for struggling learners and enrichment programmes that help develop the learners on a personal level.

In terms of course material and learning environment, lessons are split into more clearly defined, generic and examinable subjects (similar to what you would expect to find in high school) and students have access to technologies and learning tools such as our IT lab, robotics course and Smartboard equipped classrooms to help them bridge the digital divide.

Regarding additional support for students, Nokuphila offers our senior learners vocational guidance and our School-Based Support Team assists learners to overcome learning barriers they may face. These range from finding the appropriate learning/teaching methodology to basic human needs and psychosocial support to help them achieve their academic goals.

And lastly, in terms of enrichment programmes, we encourage a buddy system, to help develop leadership maturity by giving learners certain responsibilities and obligations to meet. We were also in the process of implementing a broader social support programme that tackled issues such as antisocial behaviour and peer pressure.

Then Covid-19 struck and learners lost access to these learning tools, support systems and enrichment programmes which meant that our strategy to prepare these grade 7 learners changed drastically. Not only did the teachers need to make up for the lost time of in-person teaching but, unlike other schools who opted to trim their curriculum, Nokuphila didn’t as that would have placed our leaners at a further disadvantage down the line. This meant that we needed to stick to the full curriculum.

Our major strategy to address these issues was to get the parents involved so, rather than just wait for the lockdown to be lifted we got workbooks out to learners via a community network, had workshops with parents on how to mediate the material, and also to partner with us on a simplified hybrid blended learning model. This meant that we sent out WhatsApp material, video clips, or voice notes together with the hardcopy workbooks. We essentially initiated a self-study, independent learning program.

We also encouraged parents to make use of national forums such as TV and radio programmes that were broadcasting lessons specifically aimed at the senior primary grades.

Once learners were allowed to return to school, grade 7s were prioritised and were amongst the first group of grades to return to school in June of 2020. Learners underwent a baseline assessment to see how much they retained from lessons prior to the lockdown as well as test their understanding of the coursework they had to cover on their own during the lockdown.

Once their grasp of the course work was established, learners requiring additional attention attended catch up classes whenever possible.  Either mornings before school or afternoons after school. We also took full advantage of the learner support systems and eLearning tools to help accelerate and improve retention and understanding of the course work by making the lessons more engaging for learners. This was essential to the success of last year’s learners, coupled with investing in learner support systems, encouraging parent involvement. Investing in technology as a learning medium will be the major trends in the coming years as the focus shifts from formal schooling to education.

But, what more can schools, government and corporate partners do to help NGO schools in underprivileged communities enable learners in these transitional phases, especially considering the challenges that they now face?

Communication between grade 7 primary and grade 8 high school teachers needs to increase because it will inform the receiving teachers where to spend more time and energy. High schools also need to be more aware of the emotional, psychological challenges that are implicit for learners coming into high school. More comprehensive orientation programmes would help learners with the transition.

Also, more can be done by the government to improve the drop-out rate of learners in these exiting stages. One example would be by tracking learners through their school careers to identify the major problem areas. Another would be to establish a second educational stream alongside the current academic stream (tertiary education being the end goal) that focuses on vocational training, which will equip the less academically inclined with practical skills and ultimately motivate students to further their education.

By focusing on the foundational phase (early childhood development) instead of the senior phases, the government will truly be making a lasting impact in the quality of youths who graduate at the end of their school careers and enter the workforce. Similar to the idea of treating an ailing tree, the priority should be to make sure the roots are strong and healthy before treating the foliage.

But, the government can’t afford to do this on their own, hence the need for NGO schools and other NPOs, and it is imperative that the business sector join the struggle. Corporate and business donors and sponsors are invaluable to keeping this education element afloat and need to put more money into medium and long-term programmes.  In this economic climate corporates running learnership and internship programmes to help boost the local economy and upskill the workforce is invaluable for uplifting and creating a more inclusive society as a whole.

The class of 2020 will be known as the pioneers of an entirely new, hybrid approach to teaching because the educational systems around the world and across all levels will forever be changed as the impact of the global pandemic will reverberate through the years to come.

Silas Pillay Biography

Head of Academics at The Love Trust

Silas leads the academic practice of The Love Trust incorporating Nokuphila Primary and Pre-Primary School, Nokuphila Teacher Training Academy and the affiliated teacher training centres around the country. He is a passionate educationist committed to social and community development and has been in the profession well over two decades. Silas holds a Bachelor of Education degree and a Masters in Educational Management and Leadership from Wits University, South Africa.

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