The Covid-19 pandemic has caused severe disruptions to education. When lockdown was first implemented in March 2020, more than 14 million learners in South Africa were temporarily out of school, and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) expects that 75 000 grade 7 and 12 learners could drop out this year. In addition, despite a trimmed curriculum, around 30% of last year’s work has been carried over to 2021 and 2022, meaning that schools will have to find ways to cope with the backlog.

On 25 February 2021, responsible business consultancy Trialogue hosted a webinar looking at how corporate social investment (CSI) education programmes have adapted to the strictures, and the long-term shifts that will result from the pandemic. The panellists were Kanyisa Diamond – senior project manager of education at Old Mutual Foundation, Neptal Khoza – head of CSI at Capitec, and Sarah Mthintso – executive of CSI at the Telkom Foundation.

Two snap polls (below) conducted at the start of the webinar indicated that 51% of respondents felt their biggest challenge had been shifting their programmes online, and this adjustment continues to be the most significant (57%), ahead of putting safety measures in place for the continuation of in-person programmes.

poll1

poll2

Early pandemic lessons
The three panellists outlined some of the challenges they faced when the pandemic hit, and what adaptations they had been forced to make.

Capitec engaged with all its stakeholders and implementing partners to come up with a contingency plan. The bank decided to postpone its face-to-face teacher development and leadership programmes, although it was able to migrate its learner mathematics support online. A major challenge was adapting and responding quickly to new budget requirements from initiatives outside strategic focus areas.

Old Mutual was in the process of developing a new strategy for education prior to the pandemic, but it challenged its existing partners to rethink their programmes and modes of delivery and data costs for beneficiaries was budgeted for. The focus was shifted to assist the DBE with Covid-19 recovery and remote learning strategies. Key learnings included being able to respond to changing needs rapidly while being mindful of how reporting and governance could be affected.

Covid-19 afforded Telkom the chance to accelerate the deployment of technology in schools – a strategy already in play, and in which Telkom has invested more than R170 million over the past four years. Digital skills were migrated online, and a learner dashboard was developed to track the progress of more than 7 000 learners. Crucially, psychosocial support for learners, teachers and school leaders moved into the virtual space, through zero-rated platforms and a Childline chat box.

Strategies to assist learners, parents and educators
Mthintso said that the rollout of ICT infrastructure is not happening at the desired pace, but there are ways to narrow the digital inequality gap, like ensuring children can still access educational content through offline services. “We zero-rated more than 900 URLs last year – not just education sites but also government websites where learners could access information, for example about Covid-19,” she said, adding that more learners have access to devices than ever before. She also pointed out that technology is a critical enabler that can prepare learners for the rapidly changing world of work.

Diamond said that the issue of instructional design is paramount. “We need to find and offer alternative teaching and learning methods so as to optimise the little time learners have to access the curriculum and learning opportunities available,” she said. “How do we make sure that, when we impart knowledge, it is absorbed and retained quickly? What other mediums can we use to reach learners, other than textbooks or teachers?” With a dearth of quality online content, it is important to develop visually appealing, practical content, as well as content in children’s home languages. “African languages should be seen as an asset to heighten and optimise learning,” she said. Most important, however, is designing programmes “that can achieve impact but are done effectively without burdening the system further”.

For Khoza, digital support for parents is another important issue. “Many parents might not know this new world, and we need platforms to support them so they can support their children,” he asserted. With maths performance continuing to drop, programme design needs to focus on the needs of the learners, and collaboration is critical. “No single person has the silver bullet, but through collective efforts we can see meaningful impact,” he said, pointing out that there are creative ways to jointly roll out complementary programmes.

Safeguarding mental wellbeing in the sector
With anxiety, depression and other mental wellness issues coming to the fore during the pandemic, an emerging theme is how companies are providing psychosocial support to their staff, partners and beneficiaries. Mthintso stressed the importance of holistic support for learners and how it affects a company’s ability to achieve desired outcomes. Telkom’s collaboration with Childline has helped young people countrywide, going beyond the reach of the company’s original programming.

Khoza indicated that Capitec has collaborated with Community Keepers in the Western Cape – an organisation that provides therapeutic counselling and workshops for learners, educators and parents at its 28 partner schools in marginalised communities. In addition, the Principals Academy Trust, a longstanding Capitec partner, sees retired school principals offering extensive mentorship and emotional support to existing principals.

Old Mutual runs a leadership programme through Seed Educational Trust that empowers future leaders to cope with complex and stressful situations as a matter of course – but Diamond acknowledged that more attention should be given to Covid-19-related stress in future programmes.

Partnering with the DBE
Given the heightened importance of collaboration in recent months, the panellists offered advice for organisations wishing to partner with the DBE. Diamond said it is important to understand protocols and hierarchies, and to engage at provincial as well as national level, as this is ultimately where budgets and strategies are implemented. “Who you speak to is very important. Start at the top and engage with Deputy Director-Generals (DDGs) and provincial heads of department,” she stressed. “Understand the strategic direction of the department and don’t push your own agenda – rather look for points of alignment and where you can alleviate some of their pressure points.”

Mthintso agreed: “As much as we want to make a difference, we are not government; we are a partner that seeks to support what government is doing in the education space,” she said. “Your posture should suggest partnership and co-creation. Understand the level at which you need to engage – who is the stakeholder and how can you leverage their support?”

Khoza added that finding a ‘disciple’ who can drive one’s organisational message with the DBE is vital, along with signing an MOU that has measurable outcomes. “You’re not there to solve the department’s problems, but to complement their initiatives,” he said.

Click here for the presentation

Further resources

Read more about education knowledge-sharing on the Trialogue Knowledge Hub:

For more information on the current state of education, read the following articles: