SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND
SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

How many of you owe your matric maths and science marks to the superlative teaching of William Smith — the Knysna-based retired teacher who did his lessons on the SABC’s Learning Channel in the 1990s? He was honoured last year with the Order of the Baobab for his services to education by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Today, the biggest lesson that Smith offers us is how to use his groundbreaking teaching methods to avert a crisis in education.

It’s time to do what Smith did nearly 30 years ago. Again. Immediately. And at scale. This is the SABC’s chance to prove its worth as a public broadcaster — and to perform its ultimate duty: facilitate the education of a country in a crisis. Taxpayers may be far more tolerant of its demands on the public purse in future if it comes to the rescue of schoolchildren at this moment.

All schools have been closed across the country since Wednesday March 18 and are scheduled to open once the lockdown ends, which is currently pitched at April 16. But what if the lockdown has to be extended at that point, or what if it’s simply sensible to contain the spread of Covid-19, to keep people from congregating for as long as possible?

This is entirely feasible: look at how the virus spread among people who attended a religious gathering in Bloemfontein – and imagine a child with Covid-19 entering a class of 40, with the virus then spreading through the playground at break and jumping onto public transport on the way home. The consequences are too horrific to contemplate.

Frankly, we don’t have a choice but to tackle education very differently.

Education specialist Mary Metcalfe was quoted last week warning that SA could lose the entire school year: “I don’t want to cause panic,” she said. “I think the school year will be lost, but we do need to understand that our curriculum is very tight, very carefully structured, and that weeks and months of concepts not learnt will have implications for subsequent learning.”

And, with up to a million new children set to join grade 1 next year, a postponement is out of the question.

At the start of the lockdown, basic education minister Angie Motshekga said: “We have determined that schools should resume on April 14 2020, unless determined differently.” Now is that chance to determine differently.

On Friday April 3, the BBC announced what it described as “the biggest push on education in its history”. What it was doing, it said, was to ensure that every child in the UK had the opportunity to continue to follow the appropriate core parts of their nation’s school curriculum, away from the classroom.

The BBC said its newly expanded education offering would bring 14 weeks of educational programmes and lessons to every household in the country — whatever the age of the child.

The broadcaster, itself facing a hostile political environment for its coverage of the governing Conservative Party, is not only fulfilling its most basic duty — public service broadcasting — but is also winning the hearts and minds of the British public. It will use the famous faces of its children’s TV presenters, alongside top-quality teachers, the skills of the Royal Shakespeare Company (no doubt to add a little drama) and the Premier League, to bring a little star power.

Daily programmes will help guide parents and children through their learning day.

Tony Hall, the director-general of the BBC, said: “In these uncertain times parents look to the BBC to support them and offer education while children can’t be in school. This is the biggest education effort the BBC has ever undertaken. This comprehensive package is something only the BBC would be able to provide.”

SA has a little more than a week to figure out how to do something similar.

There’s been much talk of e-learning, but in this country, it really is the preserve of the few. Yet even in some wealthy households there are not enough digital devices to ensure that children can access them. And frankly, based on recent personal experience, even private schools and their tech-savvy teachers are ill-equipped to do it properly. They have not been trained and the pressure on them to create a virtual classroom is intense. Even if private and other fee-paying schools do offer e-learning as a mechanism to ensure the continued flow of fees, the fact is that 95% of SA children are educated in the public schooling system.

So here’s the solution: the government needs to commandeer the SABC during the day, interspersed with other public service broadcasts such as news and public health information, for as long as it takes for children to be able to return to school safely.

Surely the government could identify a cohort of its very best teachers and get them to Auckland Park — observing all health and safety protocols — and put those teachers in front of cameras in an ordered fashion.

So, for example, grade 1 teaching could go from 8am to 11am on SABC 1, grade 2 from 11am to 1pm and Grade 3 from 1pm to 4pm – and other lessons could happen on other publicly available channels. Sure, the logistics are complex, but there are enough smart people in television scheduling and the department of basic education to figure this out. And quickly.

Of course it’s not ideal — nothing beats face-to-face learning, especially for younger children — but if it can help keep them out of classrooms just a little bit longer, it may go some way to flattening the curve of Covid-19.

To make it happen, we would need a massive marketing campaign and the buy-in of parents and guardians who would need to ensure children are on the right screen at the right time. But as a society, what better choice do we have?

Back in 2010, the World Bank reported that 74.68% of households had a television, and the 2011 Census found that more homes had a TV than a fridge. That number is likely to be even higher today.

So, the most efficient delivery mechanism for school education is in already in place. The country’s youth face losing critical time on the curriculum, so all it takes to arrest this is some swift organising and the scrapping of some lousy daytime American soap operas. In this way, the future of more than 10-million young people could be dramatically improved. Go!

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