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NIKKI BUSH: Why education's proposed 'no repeat' policy is the wrong idea

OPINION

Literacy, numeracy and employability go hand in hand. In a country with such high unemployment we are begging for jobs to be created, but, with each generation, our local talent is becoming less and less employable.
Did you know that the highest level of repetition of a grade in the schooling system is at the very beginning, in grade one? Fifteen – 20% of South Africa’s children repeat grade one according to the Department of Education.

Their proposed quick fix solution to this looming problem that is, as you can imagine, causing a logistical bottleneck in the system, is to implement a no repeat or automatic progression policy for the foundation phase. In other words, children who have not acquired the skills in any grade from grade R to grade three will automatically be pushed through and not held back. Then they will be expected to be able to apply the skills they didn’t acquire the previous year. This is not just unfair, it makes absolutely no logical sense at all, and doesn’t correlate with what we know about neuroscience, neuro-development and child development.

BUSINESS WILL BE AFFECTED

The knock-on effect will be deep and wide, ultimately reaching employers who need numerate and literate staff, people who are future-proofed for a fast-changing world (yes, I know employers are already at the sharp end of an illiterate workforce – but things might be about to get a whole lot worse!). Stakeholders in business and those involved in education, we need to be stomping our feet and raising our voices, sending a message to government that this is not good enough and that we want to collaborate with them to find a better way: to save our children, raise their human potential and do meaningful social and economic development that has real-world benefits for all.

For me the question isn't how do we get rid of this bottleneck, but rather, what is causing so many children to not be able to cope in grade one? The answer is not rocket science:

SCHOOL READINESS AND LEARNING READINESS

For school readiness children need to acquire strong perceptual skills in the preschool years through concrete learning and guided play experiences that will provide them with the foundations for numeracy and literacy to enable them to cope with the demands of grade R. Problem: most children in our country do not have the luxury of a preschool education and so the six-year school readiness journey is squashed into one year of grade R. It is no longer a miraculous and exciting learning journey, but rather a destination to an assessment that many of them are failing.

From grade R to three, children are moving from the concrete learning phase to abstract where they can grasp symbols such as letters and numbers. They are learning to decode the world, to read. This is learning readiness for the transition to reading to learn and reading for comprehension in grade four.

The no repeat policy will shift the bottleneck to grade four where remediation will become ever more difficult as children then have different subject teachers, and those most affected will be expected to apply skills they haven't yet mastered. I believe this is most unfair on the child and will have lifelong ramifications on their self-esteem and future employability due to lack of fundamental numeracy and literacy.

WHERE DOES THE PROBLEM REALLY START?

While keeping children back to repeat a year to consolidate skills is better than pushing them to the next grade with missing bricks in the wall of their foundations, this in itself, is not addressing the real problem of:

*Lack of preschool education for most of South Africa's children;
*Lack of sufficient and suitably qualified staff in the preschool arena; and
*Lack of parental education - there is an enormous amount that parents can do at home to prepare their children for school and help them acquire school readiness skills, and reinforce what they are learning at school in every day.

With the correct training in perceptual skills development, adults (parents together with teachers) can prepare children for grade R without sophisticated schools and equipment, if you know how fundamental learning occurs.
There are so many more issues at play. I have highlighted just a few.

A LEARNING JOURNEY VS AN EDUCATION SYSTEM

Children are wired to learn, naturally. We need to be harnessing their curiosity and raising their energy to learn. Instead, we miss the moment by building an education system which is essentially a power play that doesn’t benefit the learner or the employer, burning educators out in the process, rather than developing a powerful learning journey that celebrates the child, their brilliant ability to learn and supports teachers.

We can't allow another generation to suffer, as well as the knock-on effects on our economy and levels of crime that affect all of us. There has to be another way. Maybe we haven't seen it yet.

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

The no repeat policy is not yet cast in stone. Do what you can to pause this process, as I am doing. The South African Democratic Teacher's Union has yet to comment on the matter and their teachers are going to be severely impacted should this policy be passed, having to both teach and remediate at the same time with 40 - 60 children in a class. It is not humanly possible and is inhumane to both teachers and children alike.

What does South Africa want to be known for other than entrenching illiteracy and robbing disadvantaged children (the majority of our youth) of a future because of it? What narrative do we want to create as a country? It's time we started writing and telling a different story but, from the current leadership perspective, this story is very unclear and very depressing.

Please keep sharing what I am posting on the matter as widely as possible. We have some incredible people in child development and education in this country who could contribute enormously to this conversation and their voices are not being heard. I will be interviewing them and sharing their voices with you.

Nikki Bush is a human potential and parenting thought leader, speaker and author.

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