By Somila Mjekula, Communications & Advocacy Officer at The Learning Trust
It is estimated that it could take us nearly 20 years to fully recover the learning losses we’ve incurred from the pandemic in the past two years. In the absence of a clear and detailed recovery plan from the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the after-school sector and its network of partners are stepping up to support catch-up efforts.
The 2020 academic school year suffered between 50-75% disruption from Covid-19, severely increasing the already existing learning backlogs. By the middle of 2021, it was reported that nearly 750 000 learners hadn’t returned to school since lockdown closures began.
Within this context, recent studies have emphasised the need to prioritise education for recovery, and say that “up-front investment in catch-up and remedial programmes will save money down the line by reducing the cost of repairing Covid-19-related damage by up to 75%.” (Albright and Giannini, 2021). And so, it stands to reason that with strategic mitigation efforts, along with organisational capacity strengthening, our education system could bounce back from the crisis.
It’s fair to note that the system is not in a position to handle the enormous task of learning recovery on its own, given its structural confines. This is particularly the case in the context of an unequal education system that consistently produces deep historic learning gaps.
For this reason, it is only through collective action that we can address the backlogs and ultimately move the needle on South Africa’s learning outcomes. To this end, the after-school sector offers the organisational infrastructure, programmatic flexibility, and employment capacity to deliver on the education recovery mandate at an eco-systemic level.
An ecosystem approach
Increasingly, we are seeing government, business and philanthropy all stepping up to support efforts driving catch-up. There is thus both a critical need and a ripe opportunity to collaborate, employ more human capacity, collectively measure outcomes and advocate for sustainable funding for interventionists.
With most significant grants and government funded social employment programmes requiring large-scale interventions, The Learning Trust’s role as an intermediary can ensure that community-based organisations, that are already trusted by schools and parents, can access these opportunities.
We know that After-school Programmes (ASPs) act as a bridge between schools, communities and caregivers, and fill the gaps created by differentiated teacher/learner ratios and other inequalities in the school system. ASPs have proven effective in filling gaps between the kinds of support middle- and working-class children receive, by allowing practitioners and developmental partners within the communities to provide targeted support to schools, teachers, caregivers and learners.
This ecosystem approach goes beyond offering supplementary support to formal schooling through academic programmes, but also includes psychosocial support, safe places to learn and play, enrichment opportunities, and meals.
The after-school Catch-Up Coalition
TLT has begun to coordinate a ‘Catch-up Coalition’ of non-profit ASP providers who are well positioned to provide a range of support services in challenging contexts where the formal education system is unable to do so alone. The coalition will form a collective learning platform, lead advocacy to government departments around mainstreaming after-school for education recovery, and maximise employment stimulus packages to capacitate and sustain the sector.
Joining this coalition are partners from diverse settings, including non-profit after-school providers, materials developers and interventionists, advocacy and research groups, public employment initiatives, provincial and district education departments, partner schools and independent service providers in education – all with differentiated levels of commitment and responsibility.
At this early stage of the coalition, partners have already determined their detailed activities and objectives suited to the needs, interests, and strengths. We recognise that coordinated programme delivery, integrated outcomes tracking, and capacity building will determine the success of this collective to supporting our learners. And so we intend to support catch-up through collaboration, knowledge sharing and advocacy, influence public spending on education, and ultimately create an environment that allows ASPs to be well integrated into South Africa’s education ecosystem.
Given the complex education challenges that we are solving for, the collaborative-ecosystem approach offers a powerful tool for mobilising organisations to action, bringing community issues to prominence and identifying working practice models for scaled uptake.