Many issues prevent children from learning properly in South Africa. A legacy of Apartheid, most children in poor urban and rural areas of the country still do not receive quality education. Especially black girls have a hard time. Although access to schools has increased since the end of Apartheid, quality is still low and dropout rates are high. South African schools are struggling to keep their diverse learner population in school and ensure they make progress. Schools and teachers need to become more inclusive to achieve this: some reports indicate that 50 per cent of learners drop out before participating in their final exam.
Paul Mphisa works for VVOB in South Africa, where he facilitates professional learning communities for teachers. These communities foster collaborative learning among teachers from different schools with shared challenges. He tells us more about how VVOB strengthens teachers to teach more inclusively in his country.
Northern Cape also suffers from a high rate of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which affects learners’ cognitive development. And many teachers are not skilled enough to recognise some problems arising from lack of gross and fine motor skills in children.
On top of these challenges, the curriculum sometimes encourages teachers to follow a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, leading to many of these learners falling through the gaps. Teachers need to be extra resourceful and aware to deal with these diverse challenges faced by their learners. They need to be inclusive so every learner can progress in the foundation phase. All these themes are discussed in PLCs, a place where teachers support each other."
Exchanging good practices
What type of barriers do the most vulnerable learners in South Africa encounter? How do PLCs mitigate them exactly?
"Generally speaking, it’s not always easy to identify vulnerable learners by the way they look, but many do look unhealthy, undernourished, poorly dressed, and so on. Black girls in poor urban and rural settings are the most vulnerable learners. In traditional societies, they are not valued as an asset to the family, since they will get married and leave their families. So, when resources are scarce, boys are put ahead. Some girls miss several schooldays a month because they lack simple things like sanitary pads.
More challenging are the systemic and pedagogical barriers that require skilled teachers and flexible district officials. The PLC works on these challenges through exchanging good practices on how to assist slower learners while also helping gifted learners to progress.
In one PLC in the Free State, for example, there is a principal who started out as a teacher at a farm school and is now a principal of this school. She was so concerned about the reading challenges her learners faced, that she developed her own reading programme. She tested it in many contexts and found it works very well. She has been sharing it in PLC sessions and demonstrating with learners how it works."
Based on your experiences growing up, how will VVOB strengthen the education system in your country, do you think?
"VVOB will help the most vulnerable learners through encouraging the development of inclusive teaching in South African schools. If this can be done, many learners will be retained in the school system and make learning progress as well. This will improve the number of learners who succeed and, in turn, the number of people with improved prospects for a better life.
South Africa is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. When we’ve achieved SDG 4, our country will be set for a prosperous future as it will have an educated population and skilled workforce. This will lead to a better economy and more opportunities for everybody in the country. That should result in a society that is positive and progressive, reducing social pressure, crime and violence."