By Sibongile Khumalo, Executive Director of The Learning Trust
While some would argue that the worst impacts of Covid are slowly beginning to recede in South Africa, this is absolutely not the case for the millions of schoolchildren from townships and poorer communities.
Instead, the learning backlogs caused by school closures and reduced in-class time during the various stages of Covid-19 lockdown, even beyond 2020, have merely exacerbated an already dire situation in schools catering to the most disadvantaged of learners. Research suggests that there is simply no way under the current approach to education that the Covid-induced backlogs can be eliminated.
According to the report compiled in 2021 by The Learning Trust, titled After School Programmes in South Africa: The Investment Case, in the poorest schools – known as quintile 1-3 schools – 44% of all students drop out before they reach their matric year. Learners also take an average of three years longer to matriculate (15 years) than their best-resourced counterparts (12 years), and only 14% of those who achieve matric do well enough to enter university. In all-important maths, only 1% of learners will achieve a pass mark above 65%.
Given that these startling statistics applied prior to Covid when these children were already lagging behind their better-resourced peers, the now-critical backlogs will create even greater disparity in an education system already bedevilled by entrenched inequality.
Immediate investment in after-school programmes needed
Among the solutions to this crisis is an immediate strategy to invest in and expand after-school programmes (ASPs), which have already proven that they can measurably improve learner success in quintile 1-3 schools and help to reduce the unacceptably high dropout rate.
Non-profit ASPs have been operating since the 90s in townships and poorer communities and occupy a pivotal niche in the education ecosystem by offering tutoring and homework support, skillsbuilding, sports, ICT learning and arts & culture.
After School Programmes in South Africa: The Investment Case highlights that while the ASP sector is currently too small to realistically assist the Department of Basic Education to eliminate the huge learning backlogs, it is well positioned to make a measurable improvement, even in the short-term. This improvement will increase markedly if there is additional investment in ASPs from government, the private sector, and local and international donors.
Covid-19 and lockdowns truly brought to light the importance of at-home and in-community learning, and the education community is now increasingly looking beyond the classroom to the broader education ecosystem – including community members and caregivers.
The focus to date has largely been on the cost-per-learner in ASP participation, which requires significant investment to scale. Analysis of the cost-per-outcome, however, shows significant returns on the ASP investment and makes a strong case for such innovative financing.
The improvements that after-school programmes can bring
Among the learner outcomes that ASPs can improve – evidenced by case studies of two such programmes – is that they produce matric results that are consistently above national averages, particularly in critical subject areas like maths and science. ASPs also reduce the need to repeat grades and decreases the number of learners who opt to drop out of school.
For example, as 85% of the learners enrolled in a national ASP called IkamvaYouth pass matric, the number of years of schooling required per Grade 12 learning outcome is significantly decreased. The number of years of schooling required per Bachelor-level matric pass drops from 104 to 31. Hence, even when factoring in the ASP participation cost, the price tag per Bachelor pass drops from a national average of R2-million per learner to R770 000.
What we know is that by providing a safe environment for children and youth, and supporting their academic and socioemotional development, we improve their chances of not only finishing school, but doing well and going on to live productive and sustainable lives.
Not only does our research highlight the inequality in South Africa’s education system, but it clearly demonstrates ASPs as a viable catch-up intervention at scale and their potential to improve learning outcomes.
What we need is more funding to be released in support of the community-based interventionists who deliver these programmes. By investing in extended learning, it’s possible to significantly turn the tide on the deeper Covid-induced learning deficits that have left our most vulnerable children behind.
Sibongile Khumalo has a Master of Science degree and has over 14 years’ experience in the non-profit sector, including managing after-school programmes, leading organisational
operations and heading a youth development organisation.
She is the Executive Director of The Learning Trust, an education-focused NGO that has funded and supported over 180 educational non-profits and schools in various provinces. Her responsibilities include overseeing strategy, advocacy and fundraising.