Warning over new subjects for schools in South Africa

 ·20 Jun 2024

School groups have welcomed the Department of Basic Education’s move to formalise coding and robotics as subjects in South African public schools but have warned that the initiative will have little bearing as long as funding, teachers and capacity remain problems.

In the first week of June, the department gazetted changes to the National Policy pertaining to the Programme and Promotion Requirements for Grades R – 12, officially adding coding and robotics to the subject roster for grades R to 9.

The department has been piloting coding and robotics as a subject in schools for several years, starting with a small test group in grades R to 3 in 2021.

The latest gazette officially adds the subject to grades R to 9 in the National Curriculum Statement.

The Federation of Governing Bodies for South African Schools (Fedsas) welcomed the move, saying it was a “step in the right direction”, but said that key issues remain.

Fedsas deputy chief executive, Riaan van der Bergh, flagged three main challenges with the new curriculum that need to be addressed for the programmed to prove successful. Namely:

  • Funding
  • Teacher training
  • School capacity

He said the first big challenge would be funding, especially for no-fee schools and those in poorer communities.

“Access to hardware is also a potential issue. Experience has taught that most schools will either go without or will have to fund their own equipment. Schools will have to be vigilant in procurement and not just buy the first or cheapest product,” he said.

Education non-profit, the National Youth ICT Council, echoed this sentiment, flagging potential issues with the rollout of the curriculum in rural parts of the country especially.

The group said that the department will have to build secure, dedicated Coding and Robotics labs with internet access and hardware components.

The ICT council also flagged teacher training as vital.

Van der Bergh said that eductors in South Africa are rarely trained or upskilled in technical disciplines, which creates a barrier for entry.

He said that while coding and robotics have been part of Fedsas-led training, this has been mostly an extracurricular activity. More needs to be done to ensure that teachers are trained so that they can adequately equip learners with the tools they need to succeed in the field of technology.

In terms of capacity, the Fedsas executive said that the education department should lean on the private sector to assist it in ensuring support for the subjects in schools.

He said that there are several service providers in the market that are ready to support schools with the subjects, and that one it has already been working with has worked with more than 300 schools in the pilot programme, with resources for educators available for free.

Outside of the operational challenges the subjects still face, Van der Bergh also said that the education department also has to ensure that the curriculum is up to date to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape in the tech field.

For example, he noted that “the buzz and hype around artificial intelligence (AI)” presents the opportunity for the department to open the discussion on the responsible use of AI in education.

“AI is not just a newsworthy item, but we see it progressively being used by learners and in some cases by teachers and school administrators. The dangers of AI need to be highlighted but also the value and benefits,” he said.

For grades R-3, the subject is included alongside mathematics, and for grades 4-9, the subject is included alongside mathematics, natural sciences and technology.

In terms of approved subjects for the National Qualifications Framework, it is listed under among other STEM subjects such as computer applications technology, mathematics, physical sciences, life sciences, information technology and maths literacy.

The subjects have not been added to the curriculum for grades 10 to 12 as yet.

A draft outline of the subject at the launch of the pilot showed how coding and robots would be taught in each phase. Van der Bergh said that Fedsas is keen on reviewing the final curriculum once it is published.

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