UCT online school: admirable maybe. Equal opportunity? ...

Ideas

UCT online school: admirable maybe. Equal opportunity? Definitely not

UCT deserves credit for its new online school, but let’s face it, it’s for the middle class, not the poor

Columnist

When I first learnt about the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) new online school I was very excited and did an immediate “shout out” for the initiative to my 122,000+ Twitter followers. After all, there are so few bright new ideas about how to change the education futures of schoolchildren, especially from our 26 public universities. Then I took a closer look and, to be honest, I am no longer as enthusiastic about this much-heralded innovation.

Let me start, though, by making clear that our universities have a long tradition of working with schools out of a sense of public duty and pure self-interest — we need well-prepared pupils as first-year enrolments. Stellenbosch University has a celebrated telematics programme that has opened opportunities for “geographically dispersed students”. The University of the Free State (UFS) engaged in a huge schools turnaround programme that targeted principal leadership alongside the deployment of expert teachers as in-classroom partners to regular teachers to improve learning in science and mathematics. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has two schools — the UJ Metropolitan Academy for disadvantaged pupils, recently designated as a “high tech and innovation” focus school, and the Funda UJabule Primary School on its Soweto campus that also serves as a live training centre for teachers (like hospitals give practise training to medical students). Wonderful, the more the merrier. Or is it?

First, the UCT online initiative is a private school. You pay and the partnering company makes a profit it shares with our premier university. R2,000 a month for full participation in the school might sound reasonable for the middle classes, but domestic workers and gardeners do not earn that kind of money. So let’s not pretend this school is for the poor or that it will bridge inequalities in society. It is a for-profit initiative that will only exist to the extent that there are margins the company can live with...

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