Acorn Education Supports No-fee Public Schools in South Africa to Transition to Blended Learning during the Pandemic

Anco Booysen has over 15 years of experience in management consulting for the public sector, nonprofits and corporate clients. In 2016, she founded Acorn Education as a new School Operating Partner in the Public School Partnerships Pilot Programme.

I spent a good number of years as a management consultant and while conducting an efficacy study on an independent school I became passionate about education reform in the lower income sector. Statistics indicated that there is a huge discrepancy in the outcomes of private and fee paying public schools versus no-fee public schools (which make up nearly two-thirds of South African schools). It became clear to me that for many in our country access to quality schooling was linked to household income and simply unaffordable. In 2015 I started working with the Public School Partnership project–a public private partnership between private funders and the Western Cape Public Education Department (WCED) that is loosely based on a model similar to the academies in the UK and charter movement in the U.S. The pilot project is part of the Collaboration Schools model and is now in its fifth year.

As a School Operating Partner in the project, our non-profit organisation Acorn Education supports 3 out of the 18 schools in the program. We support two no-fee public primary schools (ages 6-13) that have 1,300 and 620 learners respectively and a no-fee public high school with 1,000 learners. We founded two of these schools in cooperation with the WCED, which meant setting up the schools including recruiting staff, creating the academic approach and establishing the school brand and culture. The learners we serve are all previously disadvantaged learners from lower income communities.

While apartheid ended over 25 years ago, change has been slow on the socioeconomic front, especially in terms of access to high quality education and availability of opportunities. On 23 June 2020 Statistics SA announced that the overall unemployment rate has increased to 30.1% and that 7.1 million people in South Africa were unemployed in the first quarter of 2020.  In addition, in the same period youth unemployment has risen to a staggering 59%. At Acorn Education we are passionate about breaking the cycle of poverty by providing learners with a high quality education so they can go on to explore tertiary studies or successfully enter the workforce after completing high school.

When the pandemic began, the South African Government was very proactive, and within two weeks of the first COVID case arriving in South Africa, the entire country was placed under lockdown and schools were closed. Even prior to the pandemic, we knew that a significant number of our learners were often lagging academically behind more affluent schools. We were thus concerned that prolonged school closures could be detrimental for keeping learners on track to successfully complete high school. We were also worried that our learners would be comparatively disadvantaged as more affluent learners had access to WiFi and were able to transition quite seamlessly to online learning via Zoom and Google Classroom. We were clear from the beginning that our learners had to continue learning during lockdown and, given the logistics and associated risks of delivering physical materials during the pandemic, moving online seemed the most logical and effective solution.

Shortly after the schools closed our high school teachers started 55 Facebook class groups to continue teaching and maintain contact with learners. We were astonished to find that 85% of learners attended online school via the Facebook groups and recognised that our learners were highly motivated to continue learning despite the challenges. It was time to get to work.

In order to launch online schooling we needed to solve a number of barriers : namely 1) access to data; 2) access to devices and 3) deciding on a delivery method. To address these challenges, we focused on solving one barrier at a time. Many learners did not have a device or access to the internet at home. Every morning at 6:30am, we provided  learners with just enough data to access their daily learning activities for those with access to a device within their households. Thereafter we procured cost effective devices – which was especially difficult during the lockdown. Since tablets were simply not affordable, we purchased 500 small smartphones at around $18 per device to distribute on loan to learners who did not have access to a device. We knew we had to support our teachers and learners with a better delivery tool and after much research and testing we procured Moodle––a robust and established LMS platform that could handle the demand and requirements of our schools.  After customization we launched a learner management system (LMS). The LMS was 1st tested at the high school before being rolled out to the two primary schools.

Teachers checked-in with every learner in their register class once a week to identify learners that required support with access to food, mental wellbeing, and accessing the LMS. We also developed “how to guides” for teachers and learners as some learners and parents were not tech savvy. Due to the extended economic lockdown unemployment figures rose sharply and hunger skyrocketed. In response, we transitioned from providing learners with a free meal at school to delivering food parcels to those households in dire need. As a result of the one-on-one teacher engagement with learners, it became clear that many learners were struggling with mental health issues related to impact of the economic shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic. We consequently appointed a social worker to follow up with those learners and their families flagged by the teachers as needing assistance.

The main challenge continued to be funding the cost of data for over 2,870 learners to be able to access the LMS. The high cost of data were simply not sustainable. Assistance came via the DG Murray Trust who led a petition to the South African Government to request mobile operators to zero data rate 40 education sites (including ours) so that learners can continue to learn data free from home during the pandemic: Several months later, the mobile operators relented and our site and many others are now zero data rated – a huge win for learners, teachers and education providers. Now our learners can access the LMS on our site completely free of charge to watch lessons, complete exercises and communicate with their teachers.

Once we removed the barriers for the learners, we had to support our teachers to move teaching to the LMS. We employed a dedicated IT Support Manager to train teachers via Zoom on how to record videos, compress and upload them, as well as creating how-to guides. In addition to the technological component, teachers were also concerned about how to adapt their teaching style to the online environment. Our School Leadership Teams became champions of the online learning model and motivated our teachers to keep going. Teachers supported each other in developing professional lesson plans and templates. Our Acorn Education Instructional Coaching team pivoted to provide instructional coaching and support to teachers online. Our instructional coaches would review the lessons on the LMS and provide feedback and assistance to teachers to develop high quality lessons and continue their professional development journey. Online teaching also facilitated co-planning and sharing the teaching load amongst teachers. One teacher would develop a specific lesson which is then shared with the entire grade on LMS and not just the class while the rest of the teachers continue to support their learners in their class groups.

In the end, the LMS was very successful as 90% of high school learners and 80% of primary school learners participated. We realised that while we had all been talking about blended learning for years we had now, due to necessity, adopted a completely blended-learning model in a matter of months. Parents have shared messages of appreciation that their children can continue to learn at home, as it gives them a sense of purpose and direction to stay on track and helps prevent a general feeling of despair during this challenging time.

Schools opened for the first time in June for a delayed start to Term 2. Due to the earlier roll out of the LMS, many of our learners had already completed term 2’s work online. Our teachers could now focus on consolidation and re-teaching problematic areas during physical class time. Due to social distancing restrictions, our schools have transitioned to blending learning with learners attending school on alternating days or weeks. On the days they are at home, they continue to learn on the LMS.  

Like for many other organizations, the past five months has been a challenging time for schools. The teachers have had to transition from normal teaching practice to online learning, setting up new lesson plans, devising and recording instructional videos, preparing materials, and finding new ways to check in on and connect with their learners. All of this while juggling the impact of COVID-19 on their families and personal lives as well. Our learners have had to dig deep and keep themselves motivated and disciplined to keep learning alone and remotely despite often challenging home environments. We have been humbled and gratified by the dedication, agility and resilience of our teachers and learners during this pandemic.

We still have much work to do to continue online learning through the remainder of the pandemic. We also need to provide the ongoing socio-emotional and academic support learners will need during the recovery. But the lessons we have learned, and the innovations we have pioneered, will not soon leave us. We are building new practices that will last beyond COVID-19, and will benefit our learners for many years to come.

Thank you to Anco for sharing your story and how Acorn Education has adapted to the current conditions to ensure educational continuity for your learners. We look forward to hearing how this project advances!

Meet Anco Booysen: Anco Booysen, Founder and CEO, Acorn Education