OPINION: Even before the pandemic, pupils were falling behind – how can we achieve a fundamental catch-up?

Learning loss. We’ve heard this term a fair number of times since the Covid-19 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 pupil’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 pupils over the past two years.

Despite the uptick in the use of the phrase in public discourse, learning losses in South Africa precede the pandemic. For thousands of pupils, 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 multidimensionally poor; their socioeconomic circumstances affect their pathways through school, their ability to learn and access opportunities. This is evident when eight out of 10 children in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning in any language. They are not faring much better in maths either. A 2019 study found that roughly 41% of pupils 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 pupils 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 pupils repeating grades more than doubles. Among those in grades 10 to 12, about 20% are three or more years overage, having repeated grades. High repetition leads to pupils becoming overage for their class, increasing their likelihood of dropping out.

Read the full opinion piece on the Daily Maverick.