It almost defies logic that children could achieve a 100% pass rate during a pandemic.
Being confined indoors for months at a time, enduring constant disruptions to the school curriculum, and worrying about the health and safety of loved ones goes against everything it means to be a child.
Despite these unprecedented circumstances, many young people have not only managed to weather the storm, but excel in the classroom to secure positions at some of South Africa’s leading universities.
That some of these children hail from South Africa’s poorest areas, including Alexandra, Diepsloot, Bosmont, Dunoon, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and the deep-rural Eastern Cape, is further testament to their resilience and will to succeed, especially within the context of South Africa’s ongoing struggle with equal access to quality education.
Fortunately, they have also come to realise they are not alone.
Thanks to dynamic academic interventions like the OLICO Maths Education Programme, a beneficiary of the Datatec Education and Technology Foundation, participating learners managed to overcome the odds to achieve the Holy Grail of a 100% matric pass rate in 2020.
Not only that, but they also achieved a 100% pass rate for pure maths and a 91% bachelor-level pass rate against a national average of only 36%.
Furthermore, four-fifths of these learners scored in the top 20% of maths learners in the country, with five distinctions recorded for pure maths – a first for the OLICO programme.
Their performance can only be considered “phenomenal”, according to Datatec Education and Technology Foundation chair Maya Makanjee.
Last year, 863 learners participated in OLICO’s high school programme.
The upheaval caused by the pandemic’s arrival in South Africa required that facilitators adapt teaching strategies as quickly as possible while at the same time appreciating that learners were faced with challenges they had never encountered before.
Because OLICO was unable to offer the usual face-to-face support to target beneficiaries, it had to diversify. Not only did it continue with its original after-school intervention that ran in 12 schools in Gauteng and the Western Cape during the first term of 2020, but it also transitioned to WhatsApp group classes during the initial hard lockdown from April to July.
Additionally, OLICO provided support to learners on the revised curriculum between August and December.
To do this successfully in a low-tech environment like Diepsloot, OLICO focused on blending existing solutions such as WhatsApp and entry-level cell phones with a carefully thought-through educational strategy to keep learners engaged over the long-term.
This was important for all grades, but especially important for the matrics to ensure they performed to their full potential on their final exams.
The learners benefitted from other innovations as well.
OLICO launched a Maths WhatsApp Hotline for senior phase learners, with more than 5,000 making use of the service, and also published a number fluency app for entry-level android devices (data-free).
It also entered into new collaborative partnerships with the Gauteng and the Western Cape education departments.
One of the learners to achieve a distinction in 2020, Phakama Xabanisa, explains that moving to remote learning last year required a big change in mind-set.
“Studying during lockdown was so difficult because we were used to getting support directly from tutors, but now we had to study over WhatsApp,” she says.
“But OLICO provided us with data and phones. OLICO means so much to me because I plan to study civil engineering. Ever since I joined the programme, my maths has improved to the point where this is possible.”
A carefully adapted pedagogical approach unfolded in WhatsApp groups across OLICO’s schools every morning while learners were at home.
Tutors would send out customised WhatsApp worksheets aligned to the revised Department of Basic Education curriculum to their groups. Learners would have an opportunity to work through the worksheets and then the tutor would run a WhatsApp session in the afternoon going over any questions that arose and taking learners through the solutions.
This approach included regular maths puzzles and games to keep the context fresh and interesting.
Once learners returned to school in the second half of the year, the daily WhatsApp sessions shifted to 2 afternoons a week with Friday afternoons for additional catch-up work for learners who needed extra support.
During the hard lockdown period, OLICO also further expanded its online maths tool to include more than 30,000 unique, interactive maths questions with an extensive range of video tutorials and e-manipulatives for Senior Phase.
“The lockdown has shown that when low-tech tools such as WhatsApp are combined with a well thought through educational approach, they can be very effective learning supports. I could not be more proud of our learners and our OLICO facilitators for their commitment and what they have managed to achieve,” Makanjee says.