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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pilkington

What are these "post-COVID schooling opportunities?"

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Post-Covid-19 life is emerging, masked, sanitized, and just a bit shell-shocked.

As if COVID bombardment wasn't enough, the media blitzes daily us about "change-this, change-that, and change-another-thing," including past assumptions about school and learning. And the media is right - school and learning are not automatically the same, despite what traditional schools will have you believe.

The early meaning of “School” in English was “place to learn through experience.” FEC believes that too little genuine experiential learning is happening in schools, despite much marketing thereof. There's little real discussion, exploration, and exercise of natural curiosity. For the most part, once the pretty packaging is stripped away, schools are disguised “chalk-and-talk” places, with the chalk dust being replaced by fumes from board pens!

Our SA schools replaced the term “pupil” with "learner" some years ago, perhaps in forlorn hope. What a tragic change in terminology considering the state of schools. Although the latest available data is over 5 years old, Africa Check verified that “Results from international, standardized tests show that between 75% and 80% of South African schools are not able to impart the necessary skills to students.”

At Focus Education Centres, we prefer the title “pupils.” It comes from Latin for “minor / ward,” and simply means a child who has someone responsible for their well-being and education. We believe the title "learner" should be earned!

Focus Education Centres has no desire to be a school alternative, but a learning alternative. We actually "un-school," as we encourage learning beyond the basics in both work and attitude.

School is all-to-often about rules, punishment, discipline, crowds, homework, generalized assumptions, and catering to the middle. That is despite promises regarding extension of the advanced learner, or assistance for the struggling one. Teachers just don't have time! Work is done amidst contestation, veiled threat, and social anxiety. Kids are labelled according to achievement and behaviour, with the high achievers being considered as “good,” and the lesser achievers become “trouble causers.”

In a paper for Psychology Today - the subject of the next blog - Dr Peter Gray notes American findings that should shake us from pure acceptance that what school has become is the only option, or the only way that is right.

I know the real state of things because I’ve governed the daily education mill. While we might - sadly - expect it of State Schools, some of us have become disillusioned with some traditional schools. Despite their promises, sloganeering, and marketing, their bottom-line financial figures and divided priorities affect what teachers are trying to do daily. 'Ever asked yourself what percentage of a school's income is spent on direct classroom equipment and resources?

Even as a Principal, for example, I was once denied support to introduce coding and robotics. I was told to "keep it traditional, because that's what parents want," so the teacher and I sneaked it in under the radar. We loved the fact that a few years later the Board began to use it as part of their “look at our modern ways ” marketing – they didn’t even know it was already there when they published their new flyers boasting its introduction....

In 2018 The Varkey Foundation published a Parent Survey from across 29 countries, ranging from 1st to 3rd World, the Americas, to Africa, Europe, and the East. 1000 parents were polled in 26 of the countries, including SA. Although there is an all-inclusive report, a link to the South African one is at the end of this letter.

A summary of the findings shows that:

  • 82% of South African parents would send their kids to an Independent School, if they could afford it.

  • More than half (54%) of South African parents rate State Schools in their country as fairly poor or very poor – higher than any other country surveyed apart from Uganda (66%).

  • Almost three-quarters (72%) of South African parents think standards of education have worsened in the last 10 years, higher than any other country surveyed.

  • Only 25% of South African parents rated State Schools as good, well below the global average of 45%.

Access to the best education is still affected by economic status, with some of the best schools in Africa being accessible only to those who can afford it. That perpetuates previous racial and socioeconomic injustice.

Traditional Independent Schooling is seen as the dream route to success in SA, yet the growth in home school numbers is indicative of another independent route to equal success at far reduced cost. This could - and surely MUST - tip the scales of access, and FEC is actively seeking partnerships that will change the dire education options available to far too many pupils.

We have been made to think that learning is only really possible at a traditional school venue, yet some of history’s greatest influencers did not attend traditional schools, and tutor-led / apprenticeship education has been one of the most significant systems across cultures for millennia.

Not only that, but millions of parents have realized during lockdown that, although they’d prefer not or cannot continue to home school their kids themselves, the option is real, accessible, affordable, and effective if they can just find a Centre to do the admin, supervision, and assistance while they are at work!

Savings are especially significant in this COVID-19 time in which world economies – including ours – are collapsing. Premier Makhura has said that Gauteng alone may shed - or has already shed – over 850 000 jobs, although others cite the potential of over 1 million.

Money for school fees and those scary extras on the school invoice is scarce post-COVID, but using a Curriculum Provider such as IMPAQ, coupled with Focus Education Centres, parents make significant financial savings even as their children gain the same Matric as through most Independent Schools.

Genuine figures show savings - grade and phase dependent - from 48% to 62%. I spoke to someone recently whose spouse has lost their income. They realized that FEC’s route essentially saves the same as the lost salary! In another case, their fees have literally halved even before the usual school extras.

IMPAQ alone serves 18 000 home schoolers [News24 – 21/5/2020] to whom they deliver a curriculum, and they have put 100 000 pupils through their system and into tertiary education.

"That's fine," I hear you say, "But which parent has time or expertise to co-teach kids, organize with their personal tutors, supervise their day, and monitor their progress, all while trying to earn a living?

We do! FEC has the time, and the expertise for your kids while you are at work.

Learning should be about exploration, preference, challenge, personalized time management, encouragement, the person, their dreams, and their journey.

Schools love the buzzwords that now include “21st Century skills”, the “Four C’s” [or 5, or 7, or whatever of them…] and other phrases, and so they should. My experience, though, is that there is little real purposing being revisited, and schools mainly repackage their offering. They don't have the flexibility that a Centre has. They are timetable driven. Finishing work early in a class doesn't result in that time being self-allocated to an interest, or to other work. FEC recognizes the inevitability of system requiring syllabus, delivery of understanding, assessment, and reporting on attainment, but we are insistent that pupils understand and experience so much more!

A Grade 10 pupil recently did two weeks' worth of coding class in a 3-hour marathon stint. He was amazed at being "allowed" to choose to dedicate his time, and he conquered something to do with "looping." The keys were the real-world decision to dedicate needed time, and the opportunity to make that decision!

I believe schooling has lost something in the herd mentality, and that we need to return to learning through inquiry and experience. Exploration can tell us what we can’t do, or what we just don’t like! It was through exposure and/or lack of success that I realized that I would never be a doctor or an engineer, and that’s a good thing for sick people, and those who drive over bridges!

President John F. Kennedy said: "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word "crisis." One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity."

That’s where we all are – in crisis - but what of that opportunity?

It's time to learn again, not just to school!

Varkey Foundation link:

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