LAT speaks on Covid and the education system
COVID-19 was declared by WHO as a public health emergency of international concern, a pandemic, on March 11, 2020. The pandemic has disrupted learning for over 89 percent of the world’s student population, for more than 1.5 billion children in about 188 countries education has been interrupted. This time not only the generally vulnerable children that include the disabled, poor and other marginalized groups are the most affected – the entire student population is.
The novel Coronavirus was declared a national emergency on March 18 in Lesotho, and schools have been closed since to prevent contamination with the virus; this has affected approximately 511 3181 learners.
This unprecedented crisis calls for a response well beyond just the education sector as there is a need to ensure children’s wellbeing and continuity of learning while schools are closed, but also to ensure that schools can ensure safe operations when they reopen. The crisis is evolving and has no fixed timeline, yet continuance of learning has to be ensured, in this wide-ranging interview Public Eye Reporter MATHATISI SEBUSI (PE) engaged Lesotho Teachers Association (LAT) secretary general, LETSATSI NTSIBULANE (LN), on the country’s education system in relation to the pandemic’s impact, the need for multi-sectoral planning, coordination and pooling of resources in response to the crisis in alignment to the national response plan and other sectoral response plans that include health, water and social development.
PE: Education, as a concept, is often equated to the ordinary task of simply walking to a classroom, getting told something and walking back. How key is education in an individual’s life, to their community, country and the proper functioning of the globe we share as human beings?
LN: Central to education should be curriculum ideologies that respond to the needs of a society. Secondly, there should be a shift from the meritocratic type of education epitomised by content-based education where only the teacher is the source of knowledge.
Such content even entails irrelevant knowledge to the needs of people. For instance, in the case of Lesotho, do we really need knowledge on marine process, rainforest climates, and knowledge on locusts to mention but a few?
We should move from a content-based education system replete of irrelevant content to an integrated curriculum where learners are at the centre of their learning while teachers are facilitators.
PE: Is the world, through governments and institutions that run it, doing enough to educate its citizens?
LN: Other countries are far ahead in their educational reforms that directly respond to their needs. China is one example of such countries where innovation bears clear evidence to the type education the country is enjoying.
PE: Let’s talk about Africa, is it doing enough?
LN: Some countries in Africa have begun necessary reforms that address national needs. Rwanda is one of such countries. Nonetheless, many African countries still pursue education system inherited from colonial era where interest of colonisers was to produce labourers who could not produce anything but what had been memorised in class.
For instance, an African Medical Doctor can only remember how medication is applied as opposed to innovation including development of vaccines.
PE: Coming to Lesotho, how has the country fared; can we say we have an educated society – looking at the level of its comprehension of issues, literacy rate and the like?
LN: In terms of ordinary literary, the Lesotho is doing fairly well compared to other African countries. But literacy does not translate to education for national development. There is ample evidence that thousands of literate Basotho still struggle; literarily education has not brought any good in their lives except to know how to read and right. Even many citizens with tertiary qualifications cannot do anything except to wait to be employed in the formal sector. The skyrocketing unemployment rate attests to this truism.
PE: Where have we excelled and where have we failed?
LN: As a country we have done fairly well in reproducing employees for the formal and private sector. We have amble labour in a number of spheres. We have not done well in innovation and harnessing opportunities we have as a country.
For instance, our mines are still in the hands of foreigners from which we get meagre shares of the production. AGOA presented an opportunity for Basotho to learn from Asian textile companies and thereafter seize the opportunity, but the converse is true.
All this relates to the education system we have. Do we have tertiary schools in mining and textile industry? Why teach learners about deserts and waist their precious time when you have mineral resources, plenty of stone and pastures encroached by wild vegetation?
PE: This brings us to the point of the professionals who impart knowledge to the masses, does the country have a well-equipped and dedicated pool of teachers?
LN: Teachers are well equipped but in mostly irrelevant skills and knowledge, not to mention the archaic pedagogical skills that have no space in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Most teachers are but transmitters of memorised knowledge, unfortunately.
P E: What makes the teacher an important component of this process of learning, key to education?
LN: A teacher’s role is to facilitate learning. That should be what makes him/her pivotal in education. Equipped with pedagogical skills founded in the constructivism, teachers should be able to unleash the potential in a learner to explore and bring solutions so all social ills of our beautiful country.
Could anyone deny the potential we have in tourism? Don’t we have plenty of water for irrigation, sport and tourism? Is our education lined to these opportunities?
PE: Is the country giving teachers their deserved recognition and respect, providing well for their welfare through decent remuneration?
LN: Our country does not value education despite education allocated the lion’s share of the national budget, it follows that implementers/teachers are nowhere never the priority groups in the civil service. While civil servants enjoy awards for their efforts on the Public Service Day, teachers can only enjoy speeches of their own on the World Teachers Day.
I deliberately decide not to talk about the excruciating pain of teachers who spend years after retirement without pension some of which even die before they could taste the paltry pension they have word so hard for in servicing their only country in the world.
PE: How would you rate our level of education at the moment compared to sister regional countries?
NL: This aforementioned assertion can be accorded to the national attitude to education. Education does not fall within the priorities of our country. Even educated prime ministers and minsters that ought to understand the value of education in society pursue divergent goals once in power, contrary to their political manifestos.
PE: What are we doing right, or wrong?
LN: History records that the National University of Lesotho was a hub for the Southern African countries many of whose leaders are products of this what used to be a prestigious institution? Today comparing Lesotho with Botswana, for instance, would be totally unfair, not to mention South Africa. For lack of a better word, we are a catastrophe to ourselves.
God never gave us natural disasters for He knew that added to our own we would be too hard to bear. However, this does not mean there are no traces of good in our level of education. The last time I checked we do excel in some areas such as the legal spheres.
PE: We are into the third year that sees the country’s education system derailed, first by a protracted teachers’ strike and then by the COVID-19 borne lockdown; what can you say about the quality of what’s provided by the system during this period?
LN: There is no iota of doubt that the system has been adversely affected by the two phenomena. For instance, a student that set for Junior Certificate (JC) exams this year was in Form A in 2018 when the teachers’ industrial action started. Learning was interrupted all through 2020. In a nutshell, such a learner is half-baked.
PE: Schools have just been re-opened in the middle of the Covid pandemic, what measures have been put in place to ensure that children are safe from infection?
LN: Efforts were made by the Ministry of Education and Training to provide masks for students sitting for external examination including provision of M2 500 for purchase of other requirements. Nonetheless, for some schools the assistance was but a drop of water in an ocean. The opening of all Grades on March 3 leaves much to be desired in terms of safety of teachers and learners.
PE: How effective are these measures and what guarantee do you have as teachers, and relevant teacher unions, that children are safe during this period?
LN: Safety is at stake.
PE: What exactly do schools do to ensure that social distancing is maintained in classes, considering that most of the country’s schools have been complaining of depleted and shortage of classrooms?
LN: With only completing students at school, social distancing posted little or no threat. On the contrary, opening schools on the March 3 leaves schools with high rolls with no option but to implement a shift system in which schools learners may only go to school twice or once a week.
This is exacerbated by the fact that JC and the Lesotho General Certificate of Secondary Education learners have used up a number of class rooms for exams in an effort to ensure social distancing.
PE: Prior to the dawn of the pandemic, classrooms used to accommodate around 80 students, the number teachers urged was very high and made teaching very challenging. What provisions do you have for schools to ensure that all students get enough learning time and follow safety protocols, without overwhelming teachers?
LN: The ministry is better placed to address this question. Nonetheless, there is a dire need for appointment of assistant teachers to address the eminent overload and fatigue for teachers.
PE: And what about schools that have faced water shortage for years, has there been any provision made to ensure that they have water as washing hands with soap and running water is an essential health protocol to follow to curb the spread of COVID-19?
LN: Efforts were made to procure water tanks to some schools, but ensuring that they harvest water as intended can only be desired in some schools.
PE: Remote learning is considered an option for learning during the pandemic; can you say it has been effective to date?
LN: COVID-19 has exposed our greatest weakness in technological advancement, infrastructure and affordability. The country’s education could not employ remote learning owing to not only challenges in connectivity but also for multitudes of learners who could not afford the required data safe a few.
PE: As a professional within the education sector, and a teaching expert what can you say the sector has learned since March 19, 2020, where schools were first closed due to the pandemic?
LN: The greatest lesson to Lesotho since March 19, 2020, is that reliance only on physical contact of a teacher and a learner does not only subject our country to a crisis during times like this but it has a little space in the 4th Industrial Revolution…if any.
PE: What should the nation expect in terms of our education system and its quality going forward?
LN: If the pandemic is not addressed soonest, our education system will be negatively affected. Bitter consequences of a collapsed education will hit the nation hard.
PE: Before we wrap up, children have been moved to next classes despite not attending classes for the whole year; do you think that was a wise move?
LN: Automatic promotion would be a better option in these circumstances since any option would have a number of implications on transition across all levels. Moreover, with no knowledge on when the pandemic would be overcome for how long would learners repeat classes?
PE: Are there any plans at hand to ensure that by the end of the year students will have covered the entire syllabus, considering that some grades are still at home?
LN: While the ministry could address this question better there are plans to compress the syllabi such that only material considered critical for learners to know would be extracted for learners, once again a clear sign that we spend a lot of time teaching our children junk.
PE: How are the teacher unions, individual schools and teachers collaboration with the Ministry of Education in ensuring that while the country fights the COVID-19 pandemic children’s education does not suffer?
LN: Efforts are made for all stakeholders to collaborate in the fight against COVID-19 and the cooperation has made indelible marks to in ensuring that learners are education, inter alia, leaners sitting for the final examinations. Nonetheless, there are still challenges of implementation, coordination and lack of direction on the side of the ministry.
PE: Lastly, would you say the educations ministry is doing enough to address challenges facing the education sector in general, but particularly now during the Covid crisis?
LN: Generally, COVID-19 has further exposed the already ailing Ministry in terms of vision and delivery. A number of commitments by the ministry in the fight against the pandemic have not seen the light of the day. For instance, PPE was promised to be provided to all learners but the converse is true.