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UCT Online High School: Surging Ahead

“The Daily Maverick’s three-part article, published 11 December 2022, is misleading, wrong in parts, and irresponsible.” — a comprehensive rebuttal from Rob Paddock, Founder and CEO of Valenture Institute.
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The Daily Maverick’s three-part article, published this morning, is misleading, wrong in parts, and irresponsible. The article misleads through insinuation, making use of anecdotes and casting our detailed and transparent responses to the reporter’s many questions as “alleged” accounts of what we actually do. With such a one-sided article, the very first comment from a Daily Maverick reader is no surprise:

“Disappointing article. Where are the views of the teachers, parents and learners who may be perfectly happy with the school, or a response from Rob Paddock? We are presented with a very one sided picture – I prefer to be able to make up my own mind once I have been presented with both sides of the story.”

So that you can make up your own mind about some of these issues, here’s a link to the response to the Daily Maverick’s questions sent by UCT Online High School’s Executive Head of School and Chief Academic Officer Banele Lukhele. For ease of reference, I’ve also included the response by Teach Me 2’s Chief Operating Officer to questions that the Daily Maverick sent to him. For those who are interested, this note from our Executive Head of School provides a detailed description of our grading and moderation model.

Firstly, the bigger picture. Conventional schooling is in trouble in many parts of the world, but most especially in Africa right now. It is a common cause, underpinned by numerous professional and academic studies, that in South Africa schooling is in crisis. We have too few schools for our growing youth population and, every year, more and more parents are unable to place their children in a school that has their confidence, in a school that they can afford or — increasingly — in any other school. 

But if we unpack this further, we can clarify that, for South Africa, this is a low-fee and low-subsidy problem. With rare exceptions, our traditional schooling model only works if R35,000 or more is available for each high school learner. The money has to come from the state, from parents, or from a combination of both. Someone always pays for education — there is no such thing as “free”. Provided we can spend R35,000 or more per learner, per year we can attract well-qualified teachers, and teach learners in small classrooms, the model works beautifully and we don't need to change a thing. But as soon as class sizes increase, or the money available per learner goes down, then the wheels start to fall off. At present, the State allocates approximately R19,000 per year against school operating costs for each learner, but with South Africa's rapidly growing youth population, the per-learner budget will be stretched more and more. Add in the fact that 43% of our teacher population will retire in the next 10 years, and it’s clear why we need to start thinking differently about new and viable education models in our country to provide education at scale. 

At present, the top-performing subset of our State schools can only maintain their high attainment rates by taking both state subsidies and by charging additional fees to parents that are — increasingly — higher than non-subsidised private schools. In a country with the highest rate of household inequality in the world, these practices deny access to these state schools for a majority of South African families.

When this context is taken into account, the criticism that our school is “profit-driven”, with the goal of “making money”, is a bizarre caricature. Is Valenture Institute a for-profit company? Absolutely. As a for-profit company, we’ve been able to raise the hundreds of millions of rands required to build the infrastructure, course content and human capital to deliver education at scale. We receive no financial support from the government, and building the capacity to deliver education to hundreds of thousands of learners requires more capital than philanthropy alone can provide in the nonprofit sector. 

We are also criticised for seeking to offer what we do at scale. But we are proud of our determination to make a difference at a national level — no number of small projects will address the despair of the growing number of families who are being priced out of schooling opportunities for their children.  

While we strive to work at scale, one of our mantras is that the needs of each and every learner matter. We were at pains to point out to the Daily Maverick that each of our learners has access to a dedicated Support Coach. Our Guardian Portal provides parents and guardians with more real-time information on their child’s progress than any conventional school. We use learning analytics to monitor each learner’s progress through the curriculum. Here’s a comment posted online earlier today by one of our guardians, rejecting the assertions made in the Daily Maverick article:

“I just wanted to share with you that I categorically disagree with what is being said by some of the parents. I believe that UCT Online High School has done its best in its first year to provide quality schooling and learning… this year I was always amazed how much time the teachers are always available for each learner when they require personal assistance… the system of feedback on learner progress is what makes the school the best. On a daily basis I always know what my child is doing and what she has not done.”

We have been open about why some learners fell behind earlier this year, and we moved quickly to temper the opportunity for a learner to work at their own pace with more structure.  Contrary to the anecdotal assertions in the Daily Maverick’s article, we have sent out over 500 group emails to our guardians, and have engaged with 329,546 personal WhatsApp and emails with guardians and learners over the last 11 months.

This includes the information sent to the four Grade 8 parents interviewed by the Daily Maverick. We have checked and verified our email distribution lists, complaints logs and response records and, in each case, we have responded to every issue raised by these four parents, often in detail, and as we do with all queries that we receive.

We are also accused of not making good on our promise to provide a rich peer-to-peer environment for our learners. Again, this is untrue, as we pointed out to the Daily Maverick before publication. We offer more than 20 virtual clubs and societies. We have facilitated a number of local meet-ups for learners and, rather than leaving it to parents to take this role as is alleged, we always welcome the opportunity to work with parents and guardians as part of our school community, as any good school would do.  

Many of our learners demonstrate verve, imagination and strong views of their own, as was evident when a group organised an online protest to draw attention to climate change: here’s Grade 10 learner Isra Nordien talking about this, and her UCT Online High School experience. Another example is our live series that ran through the second half of the year, called “My Brilliant Future”. These sessions were open to all our learners, across all grades, and gave every learner the opportunity to engage with leading UCT academics to talk about motivation, overcoming the odds and succeeding in a chosen career. 

Much of the Daily Maverick’s article is focused on how we grade and moderate our examinations. Of course, this is of the utmost importance and we have willingly provided this information; you can read Banele Lukhele’s detailed account of our grading and moderation system by following the link provided earlier, and I encourage you to do so. Our system has much in common with systems of grading at scale that are used everywhere in the world, and is central to our ability to provide access to quality education at an affordable price. The most important aspect of our grading policy is our system of moderation and we are confident that this will yield a set of fair and consistent year-end grades for each of our learners. As a fail-safe, we have both a comprehensive system for appealing end-of-year grades and the assurance provided by SACAI, our independent accreditor.

The role of teachers cannot, and should not, be compared to the role of teachers in a traditional school. We’ve purposefully and transparently unbundled the role of teachers in our system into multiple roles which are not present at traditional schools. Our belief is that, as the primary drivers of cost in education, we have to ensure that we reserve precious teacher time to allow teachers to “only do what only teachers can do”, and allow a combination of technology and other specialist roles to do the rest. 

It’s too easy to criticise new initiatives from a dedicated team actually trying to do something about the education crisis facing this country. Have we made mistakes this year? Absolutely, but if our exponential rate of improvements and refinements in our first year of operations is anything to go by, this is a modality of learning which has the potential to be a meaningful part of the education solution for South Africa as a whole. 

Overall, I’ve been disappointed by this article, which has been built on feedback by four Grade 8 parents and anecdotes from two or three disaffected teachers who may be leaving us as part of our restructuring process. To be clear, not all of our guardians have been happy this year, and the school hasn’t been a good fit for some learners, but in a school with nearly 10,000 guardians, is this indicative of a “sinking ship”, as the Daily Maverick’s sensationalist headline suggests? Our enrollment data for 2023 is clear — 91% of the learners who wrote their end-of-year exams with us in 2022 will be returning next year.

This is not the quality of reporting that the Daily Maverick claims to represent. But let me not end with my own point of view. I will rather defer to an unsolicited response from one of our guardians to this unfortunate article, posted online earlier today:

“My daughter is thriving at UCTOHS, this article is completely one sided, and full of biased subjective opinion, and I'm speaking as a IT specialist who was very skeptical of the platform at first... I know the parents you're talking about, they're the ones that demand hands off parenting, the ones that do not attend online parents meetings or read the documentation supplied to them throughout the year, something that is apparent when you read through group chats, as they very often complain about things that have already been covered in correspondence from the school... Like everything in life you get out what you put in, and those that are complaining are the ones that put in the least effort, yet demand the greatest returns... As for extracurricular activities, my daughter has discovered a passion for photography due to the numerous 'clubs' offered to students each term (she tried the coding club, but wasn't as excited about it)... In summary, if the kids follow the program, use the awesome tutor system available and have parents that have an active interest in their education, then they will produce good results.

I also demand a retraction and an apology from the Daily Maverick as this is a hit piece published on the unfounded opinion of a handful of upstart parents who have consistently been trying to stir the pot since the beginning of the year, I bet I could list names, but I promise you, they are nothing more than a small inconsequential attention seeking group of upstarts that regularly make fools of themselves in the parent groups.

The Daily Maverick have not done their due diligence in the publication of this article, and it calls their journalistic integrity into question.”

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