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Addressing Learning Backlogs in South Africa’s Education System

Reos Partners
September, 2022


Find out how Reos Partners supported the Zenex Foundation to address learning backlogs in South Africa’s education system.

Learning Backlogs: An Intersectional Problem

South Africa’s education system faces many intersectional challenges, including inequity, food insecurity, under-resourced schools, language barriers, poor infrastructure, and learning backlogs. These problems existed before Covid-19, but the pandemic made things worse. This Wave 5 Report found that learning losses from March 2020 to June 2021 in no-fee-paying schools – which make up 80% of South African schools – are estimated to be 70% to a full year of school.

Learning backlogs are a lack of required knowledge from previous grades, which prevent learners from accessing their grade-level content. These gaps in foundational knowledge build over time, block further learning, and manifest differently across subjects. Learning backlogs go beyond shorter-term learning losses and indicate that learners haven’t attained the minimum levels of competency to proceed, hindering deep learning and the acquisition of new concepts.

To improve South Africa’s education system, we must solve learning backlogs. To do this, we need a concerted and collaborative approach to this complex issue. We knew Reos was the right partner to help us align priorities and coordinate with relevant stakeholders to address learning backlogs more effectively.

Gail Campbell, CEO of the Zenex Foundation

Reshaping South Africa’s Education System

The Zenex Foundation is an independent education grant-maker established in 1995 to improve teaching and learning outcomes in language and mathematics in South African schools. In 2021, Zenex approached Reos Partners to begin a process to address the issue of learning backlogs in the country. To build a foundation to work from, Reos engaged a range of education stakeholders to distill a shared understanding of how to define the problem of learning backlogs to inform effective responses.

Learners in a classroom
To date, the Zenex Foundation has disbursed over 57.5 million USD in the South African education sector, the impact of which is continuously assessed through research, monitoring, and evaluation to ensure that every investment drives the advancement of education.

“We began by conducting interviews with various stakeholders spanning NGOs, government, private sector, academics and researchers, teachers and principals, unions and donors within the education ecosystem. The questions explored the nature and causes of learning backlogs as well as possible ways forward,” explains Nonzwakazi Adonisi, Reos Partners Project Lead.

"From these dialogues, we synthesized where there was convergence and divergence around challenges within the system and how a good or bad future may look.”

Although many stakeholders have been working to address learning backlogs, these initiatives and groups have primarily worked in silos in an uncoordinated manner. Collaboration between stakeholders must be the starting point to achieve greater efficacy and impact.

I was impressed by how Reos got into the content and tried to understand learning backlogs from Zenex’s evidence and literature. They brought fresh perspectives, raised critical questions for us to consider, and communicated with intentionality and simplicity. They got participants to think more deeply about the problem and championed collaboration – something we’re now enjoying the fruit of.

Gail Campbell, CEO of the Zenex Foundation

Why Are Learners in South Africa Falling Behind?

The causes of learning backlogs in South Africa range from the systemic impact of poverty—limited access to books at home, poor health and nutrition, low parental involvement, and child-headed households—to critical issues in the educational ecosystem, such as historical inequality in schooling provision, poor implementation of the language policy with the prioritization of English over learners’ mother tongue, and inadequate teaching capacity to manage large classes with learners performing at differentiated levels, to name a few.

An infographic showing some of the causes of learning backlogs in South Africa

Gail believes that schools can remediate some of the effects of poverty and disadvantage:

"There are many interventions that can be made at the school level that will significantly impact learning outcomes—even where learners come from disadvantaged circumstances. Interventions include having well-trained teachers that can support such learners, having sufficient resources, vibrant classrooms, and decent infrastructure. Quality schooling can make a difference to negate the impact of poverty."

"More broadly, we need education initiatives such as a less content-heavy curriculum to allow time for teachers to revise and deepen learning. We also need to be realistic about the challenge of supporting learners at different levels. Solutions to this could lie in ed-tech, teaching assistants, or after-school extra lessons."

Moving Forward Together

“The education ecosystem includes diverse stakeholders who all have vested interests, who have real value to add, and who can influence the path and future of education in the country,” says Nonzwakazi.

“Following the synthesis of the interviews, we used several other tools to build broader understanding and improve coordination of stakeholders. The process required learning and listening to the differing views of the problem, and in this more complex understanding, identifying what opportunities might exist to address them.”

Zenex is using the synthesized report and building upon this collaborative approach to provide input and influence the Department of Basic Education’s 2024 curriculum review process.

Some of the resultant actions to date include:

  • Teams looking at possible changes to the curriculum
  • Research on the interplay between language and learning
  • Considering interventions to address the backlogs and reaching out to potential partner organizations toward this end
  • Continuing to raise awareness of the issue.

With every collaborative effort, there’s more chance of addressing the intersectional problem of learning backlogs and working toward a future where children in South Africa thrive.

Are you working on a multi-stakeholder, collaborative education project? We’d love to support you! Learn more about Reos Partners’ Education Systems work.

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