Christina Watson: CEO of Via Afrika

Christina Watson: CEO of Via Afrika

FINANCE Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech was clearly focused on cutting government spending. The R228.8bn budget allocation made to basic education this year is not a real increase in respect of percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

But under the circumstances — and at least in the foreseeable term — it will have to be sufficient to cover all new initiatives as well. I do hope that Operation Phakisa will receive a fair share.

The basic education element to Operation Phakisa, which forms part of the government’s nine-point plan to stimulate the economy, specifically aims to see a roll-out of information and communications technology (ICT) tools in classrooms across the country.

I believe strongly that ICT must play an important role in building a critical basic education foundation. Bringing young learners into the digital age at the earliest possible opportunity will provide a major step up for skills development, and contribute to higher education levels on a macroeconomic scale.

To get there, we need to start with the basics. Over the next three years, about R14.9bn will be available for teacher and learner support materials. This shouldn’t translate into just some additional textbooks. On the other hand, footing the costs of teacher training in new technologies from this budget also seems optimistic.

So, while continued funding of ICT and training is critical going forward, this is also a time for private sector involvement, innovative thinking and creative solutions.

In our case, the Via Afrika Digital Education Centre (Vadec) initiative has been illuminating. The Vadecs are upgraded shipping containers equipped with tablets, which are loaded with the latest suite of Via Afrika educational apps and interactive, multimedia e-books that operate offline.

The project also provides free wi-fi, bringing the internet to thousands of learners across these schools. We have also committed to training teachers in the use of these tools, which we believe is key to maximising their effectiveness

The primary schools where they were installed have seen remarkable results; the average grade five maths score rose from 17% to 51% at the first three schools we established a Vadec. The positive effect this can have on a child’s prospects for further learning is immeasurable. And it is clear that the key to the success of these kinds of projects that employ digital platforms and technologies is intervening at the earliest possible moment in a learner’s schooling.

The training of educators in making use of these technologies — and the funding for this training — is also a key component to the success of such an initiative. Without the requisite training that must go hand in hand with providing new technologies and methods to schools, projects like these run the risk of failing over time.

We know that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is committed to making basic education work. She described basic education in SA as being characterised by “pockets of disasters,” “a national catastrophe,” and “in crisis” at a recent education lekgotla.

But I remain convinced that initiatives such as Operation Phakisa can make ground in the struggle for better basic education. We need to continue being creative in delivering education to our learners, with broad support from both the government and the private sector.

Times are tough, but let us keep an eye on our long-terms goals, and commit as government and private sector our resources, funds and ideas. – By Christina Watson, CEO of educational publishing house Via Afrika

This article was first published in the 02 March edition of the Business Day Newspaper and is available online here

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