23 May 2024 | 07:40 AM

When online schooling goes wrong 

Key Takeaways

  • Parents and learners blame the Seat Academy online school for a low pass rate and incomplete results for the National Senior Certificate exams.
  • Seat Academy blames the bungle on teachers quitting without notice.
  • Parents are warned to be vigilant and do thorough research when choosing an online school.

On 17 January, a day before the matric results were released, Ntokozo Dlamini, 18 and a student at Seat Academy online school, was pacing up and down her house – the late results announcement this year added to her stress. 

When the results were released the next day, she checked her results on the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (Sacai) website and saw an error code next to two of her subjects, which meant she had outstanding marks and could not be given her overall result.  

Sacai is a non-profit private assessment body and its main focus is to design and put together the matric exams for learners registered to write the grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) through private and online schools.  

Sacai is one of two private assessment institutions accredited by the education quality assurance body Umalusi, the other one being the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).

While IEB accredits mostly physical and independent schools, Sacai’s membership is mostly online schools, distance education providers and smaller schools. 

Because Dlamini could not make sense of what she saw on her results statement she called Seat Academy, an online school she was registered with. Seat referred her to Sacai who told her some of her marks were outstanding.

It soon emerged that other Seat learners had problems with their results as the school’s grade 12 WhatsApp group was inundated with similar complaints. 

What had happened was that Seat had not submitted its School Based Assessments marks (SBA) to Sacai on time. SBAs are the learner’s assessment marks for each subject obtained throughout the year and constitute 25 percent of the final mark.

Seat had not submitted SBAs for 82 of 115 matriculants it had registered with Sacai. 

According to Sacai CEO Keith Maseko complaints in the form of emails came to Sacai’s attention in September 2022,  a couple of weeks before the commencement of the October/November 2022 examinations.

Maseko says his intervention on the matter included him flying to Cape Town in October before the grade 12 exam to see Seat and discuss the complaints from parents relating to cancellation of classes and learners not receiving their term reports.

The CEO added that a presentation was done by Seat on how they would turn around the institution pertaining to the cash flow issues and how marking would be completed, and SBA marks being sent to Sacai for uploading by the second week of December.

Sacai wrote a letter to Seat in November 2022 requesting it submits SBA marks timeously. It assured Seat that Sacai would not prevent learners from writing the final exams despite Seat not having settled its account with Sacai from as far back as January 2022. 

Sacai had 37 distance education providers, four online schools and 37 independent schools (brick-and-mortar schools) and a total of 4951 grade 12 learners.

Distance learning is when an institution would send learning material to learners who would then learn from home either by themselves or through the assistance of a tutor.

In turn learners would then complete assignments, projects etc and resend to the learning institution.

Online schools however mostly have live classes and operated like a normal school, just virtually. 

Sacai’s intervention did not turn things around though, and amaBhungane has tried to establish what went wrong.

Complaints

AmaBhungane counted over 300 messages from January 19 to February 20 on the grade 12 WhatsApp group which had 89 participants, both learners and parents.

“My report is a complete mess Sir, I have the wrong marks and have submitted all my work,” said one leaner, writing for the attention of Seat chief executive, John Volkwyn. 

Seat chief executive, John Volkwyn

“The same applies to [name withheld]… his Afrikaans marks are missing and we’ve made endless enquiries about this issue in term 2 already,” a parent wrote.

Another learner wrote, “Sir what must we do about the university that is waiting for my results, the 6th of Feb will be late and I will not have time to register.”

The Seat CEO, Volkwyn, in a telephonic interview with amaBhungane, blamed disgruntled teachers who he claimed quit without notice. 

He said some of the teachers did not submit learners’ marks to Seat. The teachers, he said, quit Seat because he was unable to pay them because of the non-payment of school fees by parents. 

However, the 13 parents who spoke to amaBhungane all said they had paid their fees. 

A day after the results release there was a response on the WhatsApp group from a  telephone number registered as Seat Academy.  The message said learners whose results reflected error code indicating the learner had outstanding marks, would be get their results  by 6 February. “We have forwarded all queries to Sacai by this morning and await feedback.”

Volkwyn himself replied to the WhatsApp complaints and apologised for the delay in some students not getting results and urged parents to allow the process of rectifying the results to be concluded.

Although Volkwyn said he sympathised with his ex-matriculants and their parents, he claimed the issue was blown out of proportion. 

“Parents are acting as if their children’s lives are ruined forever and this is not the case, this is what is wrong with the current education system they put emphasis on matric as if it’s the only year of schooling matters. As a society we need to ask ourselves aren’t we being dramatic,” he said.

It appeared that most parents did not accept the CEO’s explanation and demanded answers.

Volkwyn responded that Seat had worked incredibly hard over the last term to ensure that all assignments, tests and other assessments have been marked. He claimed Seat was doing all it could to assist the Grade 12s. 

“However, if this group is going to become toxic, I will exit the group and inform the staff as well. The only access you will then have to us is via email,” Volkwyn wrote on the WhatsApp group.

Parents also trolled the Seat Facebook page, posts, and adverts but their comments were removed. Complaints included that classes were cancelled at the last minute, sometimes there were no classes at all for weeks, learners were sent downloaded videos from Youtube, assessments were done late and therefore there was no monitoring of learner progress, the curriculum that was taught was not suitable and reports were not issued through the year. 

A screenshot of a review left on Hellopeter

In the interview with amaBhungane, Volkwyn claimed as a result of non-payment and late payment most of his tutors quit without giving notice which led to the cancellation of classes. 

“Tutors resigned and withheld Seat property such as the students’ marks, [they] didn’t even submit them onto our LMS (Learner management system). The very same teachers took me to CCMA. 

“Employees have more rights than employers and I blame Cosatu because they made these demands at the Bargaining Council. The resignations affected our live classes as well because it takes about six weeks to replace a teacher. After all, you have to go through the recruitment process,” Volkwyn said.

Sacai steps in 

On 2 February, Sacai called a parent meeting on Zoom to discuss a way forward. 

Thirty-five parents attended the meeting and resolved that for learners to get their full results projects would have to be resubmitted directly to Sacai to be able to calculate the SBAs. Some learners, those who didn’t have copies of their assignments, had to redo them. 

According to Maseko, as of 3 March,  only eight learners have not received their results. 

Although this means most learners got their results this is, too late for some who lost their bursaries and place at tertiary institutions.

Dlamini’s mother Nokuthula said the Seat ordeal has taken a mental strain on her daughter.  “She is putting on a brave face but I can see this has taken a mental toll. I have been monitoring her and even scheduled a therapy session because every day from morning until the night she is checking her email. She is withdrawn and avoids family and friends, you know how it is with matric results it’s a big deal,” she said.

Toxic working environment

An ex-teacher described working conditions at Seat as toxic.

One teacher said she had lost everything due to non-payment of her salary. “I don’t want to talk too much about that place I am still traumatised. Instead of management addressing the issue of non-payment of salaries we were threatened with dismissal. It was a horrible working environment. They took advantage of us they didn’t care because we were dispensable.”

On September 9, 2022, another ex-teacher wrote on Facebook that tutors were expected to work with little to nothing of what was owed being paid to them, alleging, “The management team is beyond arrogant and expects staff to motivate for their salaries as if they are children.”

“They sell their staff empty promises… They ignore you when you demand your money and then question the passion of staff to teach, as a way to play on people’s emotions. The most toxic work environment I’ve ever come across in my life.”

A screenshot of a review left on Hellopeter

Pass rate

Seat parents and learners are not only concerned about the SBAs being sent late to Sacai. The low matric pass rate of just 35% for Seat learners is also of major concern.

Out of 115 Seat matriculants 74 failed. 

This compares with four other online schools registered with Sacai achieving pass rates ranging between 70% and 80%.  There were 1 200 learners from online schools who wrote their matric results with Sacai. The overall pass rate for Sacai is 72%.

This also compares with the national average pass rate of 80.1% for public and 98.42% for private schools. 

Volkwyn also blamed his high failure rate on the learner’s lack of initiative: “The learners who didn’t do well also need to take responsibility because they didn’t prepare enough, especially in the age of the internet, they didn’t go far and beyond gone are the days where the teacher was the only source of knowledge.”  

A screenshot of a review left on Hellopeter

Low fees

Volkwyn ascribed part of the problem at Seat to the relatively low fees it charges. 

The school experienced rapid growth through its low fees, its model being to “want to change education in South Africa”.

When the school opened its virtual doors in 2020, it had 500 learners, however, at the end of last year the school had 2 400 learners.

“We admit we grew fast and couldn’t handle our debtors’ books. Our tutors couldn’t handle the workload but because of non-payment we could not hire extra staff,” he said.

Seat fees per month ranged between R650 and R1400 (for matric) a month. Fees from other online schools ranged between R2  500 to R3 500 a month and for a government school, the prices were between R1 500 and R3 000 a month.

Volkwyn believes that parents wanted a Rolls Royce service but while paying a very low price. 

“Yes, I promised a Royce Rolls service much to my detriment,” he said.

Volkwyn said the matric class owed him about R60 000 and other grades some R4 million.  

The department of basic education did not respond to amaBhungane questions on complaints against Seat, how it handled complaints on online schools, and when a policy on online schools – which exist in something of a regiulatory vacuum, was likely to be implemented. 

According to Maseko, the Seat debacle was an isolated incident and not a reflection of all of Sacai’s registered online schools.

He added that Seat was a unique case with one year of success and the next year where issues about funds/cash flow to run the operations became an issue. “These sorts of cases catch everyone off guard,” Maseko said.

Maseko stated that in 2021 Seat had good reviews on social media, hence his organisation was comfortable with Seat’s performance. 

He was therefore shocked at the end of the 2022 academic year by their performance and their communication with parents and learners who were affected.

He said Sacai had taken what action it could: “Sacai signs an annual registration with all its institutions… this also enables Sacai to terminate the relations with the respective institution if they are not operating professionally, ethically, and adhering to the implementation of the national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS),” Maseko said.

The administrative debacle cost Seat its membership with Sacai which has terminated its registration for 2023, meaning the school cannot offer grades 10, 11, and 12.

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