Dealing with barriers to learning

29 October 2013 | Phillip Methula | Opinion

It is a well-known fact that basic education is a fundamental driver for human development. Enhancing individuals’ quality of education is beneficial for increased productivity and economic growth.

South Africa, as a developing country, spends abundantly on education. According to the National Treasury, currently about 5% of our GDP goes to education. This compares well with expenditure trends on education in developed economies such as the US, Holland and Austria.

Spending on education has had benefits and this includes increased access to schooling, mostly for learners from disadvantaged communities around the country.

Notwithstanding the high participation rates in South Africa, the country’s poor performance in education is always in the media spotlight, more especially as a result of low quality of education provided by public schools. A recent World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report shows that South Africa is ranked 137th out of 139 countries for quality in mathematics and science education, and 125th for the quality of primary school education – and only ahead of countries such as Yemen.

The 2012 ANA Assessment indicates 52% in literacy, compared to the 35% in 2011, an improvement of 17%. Meanwhile, learners’ performance in Grade 3 numeracy stands at 41%, compared to 28% in 2011.

There is a multitude of well-documented problems undermining the quality of education delivery in the country. These include, but are not limited to: a shortage of teachers, under-qualified teachers and poor teacher performance, the constant shift in South Africa’s educational curriculum, power dynamics at play between a seemingly all-powerful teachers’ union (SADTU) and the State, and a lack of basic amenities, infrastructure and learning resources in townships and rural schools.

However, there are other issues not readily noticeable, but which have profound impact on the access of hundreds of learners to quality learning in the school system. These are factors that impose formidable barriers to children’s ability to learn.

MIET Africa has been contracted by Tshikululu to work with 20 schools across two education districts, Umgungundlovu and uMlazi in KwaZulu-Natal, to provide capacity for school management and teachers to have effective strategies to support learners in overcoming learning barriers. This is a pilot programme supported by the FNB Fund under the auspices of the Primary Education Programme, and it is meant to run for a period of three years.

MIET Africa has identified a number of critical barriers impacting on education that were not scrutinised in the past, including:

  • Systemic barriers, in the inadequacy of facilities and human resources, classroom overcrowding, lack of materials and assistive devices, policy and curriculum issues, transport difficulties, exclusionary practices and/or policies, and inadequate external support
  • Societal barriers, in which poverty may affect a child’s enrolment at school, a parent’s involvement with the learning process, or children “displaced” from families by the HIV and AIDS pandemic, through being orphaned, for example
  • Pedagogical barriers, in which the teaching competencies and learning materials may prevent a child from receiving a quality education
  • Intrinsic barriers in individual children, which may stem from disabilities and other medical causes affecting their physical, sensory, cognitive and psychosocial development

In the first year of the programme (2013/2014), the programme set out to achieve the following:

  • Strengthen the capacity of principals and management teams to transform schools into inclusive schools where all children can access quality education
  • Establish and strengthen school, circuit and district structures to identify and address barriers to learning experienced by vulnerable and marginalised (disabled) children
  • Strengthen collaborative networks between schools, government departments and relevant stakeholders to provide increased services to vulnerable and marginalised (disabled) children
  • Enhance the capacity of schools to provide a quality nutrition programme through the establishment of school gardens and provision of nutrition training

Tshikululu’s staff will be working closely with all the partners on the programme over the coming years, to learn from the pilot and to develop a set of practical tools and strategies to tackle the challenge of learning barriers in education.