Multi Manager Insights Webinar - The opening and closing of schools – an ethical balance sheet

By Nedgroup Investments

Professor Piet Naudé, Director of the Stellenbosch Business School and Professor of Ethics, provides his views on the South African schooling system and the opening of schools during lockdown from a moral and ethical perspective.

To listen to the full Multi Manager Insights Webinar go to Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify. You can also watch the webinar on YouTube.

The failing, ineffective and low quality school education system that has been built since 1994 is seen as the third virus in our country. Data shows that we are failing generation upon generation of school leavers. South Africa should be ashamed of its literacy and numeracy levels compared to the rest of the world and the immediate economic impact this has.

There are 14.2 million learners in South Africa at about 24 000 public schools including 2 500 independent schools. The decision to close down schools affects a very high proportion of the population, not only learners, but their parents, grandparents, teachers and support staff. This decision would have impacted around 50% of the population in some way. The decision to implement level 5 lockdown in March was valid given the lack of data and not having a clear idea of how South Africans, young, old and those with co-morbidities, etc. would be affected by the virus.

The State has three ethical obligations towards the school system, both public and private. The first, in terms of the Constitution, is the protection of life and the protection of vulnerable people, which includes children. A few months into lockdown, data was available and released by Professor Glenda Gray, CEO of the Medical Research Council, showing that children and youth were quite resilient to the virus and were more likely to catch the common flu than be infected with the Coronavirus. We also discovered that if basic preventative measures were put in place in schools, such as testing and wearing of masks, they would be extremely low transmission sites. You were far more likely to contract the virus in a full taxi, a shopping mall or playing a team sport. By the time we reached lockdown 4 and 3, we already knew that if we wanted to take our ethical decisions based on good data, that schools, subject to basic precautionary measures, were in fact safer spaces than many others places in society. The average school-going child would have been safer at school than at home. In terms of our first ethical obligation towards vulnerable people, re-opening schools was fully justified based on the data that we had later in SA’s virus history.

If we refer to first order rights as a right to life, second order rights include social, economic, educational rights, the right to basic services, etc. By the end of August, we had on average lost between 6 and 12 weeks of school days. Data shows that the longer children are not at school, the less likely it is that some of them will ever return. The drop-out data for children over the age of 6, specifically boys, is extremely high in South Africa. Without a matric and with limited opportunities to enter the economy, young people become a long-term social and economic burden. If you lock down schools, you must bear in mind the context of our education system, i.e. will pupils return to school after an extended period. And if schools are closed with no education in between, you simply reinforce the third virus that has been coming for a long time – low quality and a very inefficient system in terms of throughput, which ethically, is totally unacceptable.

Schools are for many children very important social development spaces. Many young children who are ‘locked up’ are not in an environment conducive to good social and personal development. Preliminary data from other countries shows a significant increase in asocial behaviour and maladaptation and even mental health among children who are locked out of the social system of a school over a long period of time. This is a crucial point for South Africa and we need to think very carefully about the social development implications of our total lockdown of schools.

The third aspect about quality of life is a question of simply needing to eat. 50% of South Africans are seen as ‘poor’ with social grants actually paid to support children. However, schools are places of food security for many children. If schools are locked down and you don’t replace the food system, data from dieticians shows that the stunting of a child’s growth between the ages of five and nine is totally unacceptable. The second ethical argument for opening schools is the right to basic education and food security.

The final ethical duty is to relevant education with our current education system inappropriate for our economy. Countries with successful education systems have a very small so-called academic school component and a very large technical vocational schooling system. We have far too many universities and only 50 public TVET colleges and 26 public universities. My view is that we should have 200 TVET colleges and about 10-11 good universities.

The virus provided us with a unique opportunity to turn the so-called fourth industrial revolution’s technically based education into a reality. In 2016, only 40.9% of public schools had access to computers for their learners. The lock down of schools was a fantastic opportunity to turn the situation around and make sure that the digital data capabilities for children was enhanced. According to Stats SA, 75.9% of households have access to a mobile device that would enable learning. We could therefore have transitioned to mobile learning during the school lockdown.

While the government claims to be making decisions based on the best available data, we know that decisions are also partly based on lobby groups, such as SADTU, whose teachers are paid regardless of whether they are at school or not, providing a disincentive to re-open schools.

I believe that all teachers should be declared essential service workers. We need to provide them with adequate protection as we do for medical staff and get our teachers back to school.