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Education department kicks off plans to set up official virtual schools

Prega Govender Journalist
Basil Manuel, executive director of Naptosa, says the online schooling environment has to be regulated because 'we can’t have fly-by-night schools getting in and ripping people off'.
NEW WORLD Basil Manuel, executive director of Naptosa, says the online schooling environment has to be regulated because 'we can’t have fly-by-night schools getting in and ripping people off'.
Image: Supplied

There will be a need to establish public virtual schools in the long-term because there are no institutions providing fee-free online lessons to poor pupils.

This is one of the issues highlighted in the basic education department’s draft virtual schools framework document, which was distributed to teacher unions for comment at the beginning of December.

The director-general of basic education, Mathanzima Mweli, told unions the department started developing the framework after “persistent requests to provide policy direction on the establishment, registration and regulation of these schools to ensure they operate legally”.

Virtual schools have been operating unregistered for several years as there is no policy guidance on the procedure for the establishment and registration of such institutions.

The 35-page document stated that “this policy vacuum needs to be addressed as soon as possible to regulate schools that are already operating in this space and provide guidance to those who want to establish similar schools”.

A survey of 16 virtual schools highlighted that “the inequitable shape of virtual schools that is emerging cannot be ignored”.

“The fee structures of 11 of these schools range from R11,000 to over R40,000 annually, which is out of the range for most working-class families and those who rely on a social grant. Currently, there are no public virtual schools that can provide fee-free opportunities and serve learners in quintile 1 to 3 schools (the poorest schools).”

The annual school fees at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) online high school, which will start next month, are R25,140.

The schools could cater for pupils who are hospitalised, have long-term sickness or are disabled, are young parents or young, pregnant women, are travellers, who have been bullied or are school-phobic, have left school with no or few qualifications or are in prison.

The document stated that the guiding framework was intended to help those planning to establish virtual schools “on how to establish and register quality and effective schools”.

The schools could cater for pupils who are hospitalised, have long-term sickness or are disabled, are young parents or young, pregnant women, are travellers, who have been bullied or are school-phobic, have left school with no or few qualifications or are in prison.

The purpose of the framework is to provide a definition of virtual schooling and highlight the quality criteria that schools can use to evaluate themselves for readiness to offer effective teaching and learning.

“The purpose of virtual schools, as defined in this framework and as currently operating in the country, is not to create a parallel education system, but to respond to a demand by parents for this option.”

The document proposes virtual schools offer a curriculum that will lead to a qualification registered on the General and Further Education and Training Qualifications sub-framework.

“Virtual schools should apply for accreditation from Umalusi and anyone who has the means can start a virtual school.”

The framework also suggests that to reduce inequality, virtual schools could adopt innovative funding mechanisms, including charging school fees and raising funds from donors and the private sector, to provide bursaries and scholarships to deserving students.

“As with the fee-paying public schools, learners whose families earn less than 10 times the monthly fees are eligible for a fee exemption and such fee exemptions are awarded to at least 10% of enrolled and successful learners.”

The document provides a long list of quality criteria to guide virtual schools on minimum quality criteria they can use to evaluate themselves, including curriculum design and delivery, learning and teaching support materials, assessment, infrastructure and human resource strategy.

There are other parts of a child’s development that certainly will get neglected if they are only going to be online. I’m thinking about socialisation and sport, which are desperately needed. There are children as young as six who hardly ever play outside because they are sitting on their tablets.
Basil Manuel, executive director of Naptosa

According to international literature, virtual schools have high dropout rates and their success rate is lower than that of mainstream schools.

“Virtual schools that consistently achieve poor matric results may have their accreditation revoked if they do not improve their results within a specified time period.”

Another proposal is that virtual schools that enrol poor pupils on scholarships should arrange nutrition programmes at their administrative centres or food vouchers for pupils.

Online schools also need to have a clear recruitment strategy “to ensure that they employ qualified, sufficient and suitable staff”.

“The roles and responsibilities of the staff must be clearly stated from the beginning and must also be aligned to the needs of all learners.”

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), said the online schooling environment has to be regulated because “we can’t have fly-by-night schools getting in and ripping people off”.

“There are other parts of a child’s development that certainly will get neglected if they are only going to be online. I’m thinking about socialisation and sport, which are desperately needed. There are children as young as six who hardly ever play outside because they are sitting on their tablets.”

He said he knew of people leaving prestigious schools to study online, adding: “I question the parents’ sensibility. Do you want your child sitting at home the whole day?”

“When do you form friendship bonds if you are on your own? Online friendships are not friendships,” Manuel said.

TimesLIVE

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