Palestine-Israel war spills into classrooms at prestigious school

The raging Israel-Palestine war has spilt over into the South African school syllabus with a prestigious Joburg-based public high school accused of favouring one side of the conflict over the other.

Parktown High School for Girls had to issue a statement after a question in the grade 10 English Home Language: Paper 1 Comprehension and Language end-of-year examination caused outrage among the school community, including former pupils, for portraying Hamas as terrorists. 

In the paper, the pupils were given an excerpt of an opinion piece by Toby Shapshak, published in Daily Maverick  on October 11, titled “The X we choose to bear as fake Hamas-Israel news explodes across Twitter”.

In the article, Shapshak opines about the dangers of fake news and how X, formerly known as Twitter, is complicit in the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Shapshak laments the absence of content moderators since the platform was bought by South African-born tech billionaire Elon Musk, making reference to a video posted by Ian Miles Cheong, in which he claims Hamas were going door to door killing families.

The text selected and the views expressed were perceived by some to be pro-Israel and anti-Hamas.

A former pupil at the school wrote on social media: “For a school that was developed during apartheid and proceeded to get rid of the stigma associated with such, it greatly disappoints me and honestly shows nothing but backward behaviour.

“Planting Hamas as terrorists in this day and age at such a prestigious school shows nothing but the same old regime being placed in this school and the leaders behind it.

“How can an ‘anti-apartheid’ school with one of the most advanced history departments allow for such callous ‘mistake’ or misinformation to be spread in exams,” she said.

On Thursday, principal Tracey Megom issued a statement calling the comments on social media about the exam question baseless, inflammatory and designed to speak to a particular narrative.

“I feel it is important and necessary for me to address this issue and to give some clarity and perspective …  The theme of this particular grade 10 English examination was ‘fake news’ and the dangers of fake news in the media,” she wrote in her statement.

“The whole article, including the questions based on the article, were about fake news posted on Twitter and how Twitter has abdicated its responsibilities in ensuring that the public has real information.

“Nowhere in the article is one side favoured over the other; it is simply about how people can be easily fooled by what is in the media.

“The irony about this situation and our real disappointment comes from how people in our community have perpetuated this fake news narrative by taking bits out of this paper to make it look like something it is not,” she said. 

“That being said, I do feel it is necessary to apologise for the insensitive timing of the article used to get our ‘fake news’ message across.

“We have taken note of the triggering effect it has had on some of our grade 10s and the broader school community and for that we sincerely apologise,” said Megom.

Some former pupils of the school have asked others to call the school and express their disgust at the examination question paper.

The Gauteng Department of Education said the question paper underwent moderation processes at school and district levels to align it with the standard procedures for the subject.

The department’s spokesperson Steve Mabona said the subject is not typically moderated at provincial level due to its widespread performance across schools.

“The objective was to evaluate the learner’s ability to discern between factual information and misinformation prevalent in modern media landscapes.

“Accordingly, the intention was not to align with any particular side involved in the conflict,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that this was misinterpreted. To provide further insight and guidance, we will conduct an in-depth analysis of the learner’s performance in this specific question paper.

“We remain committed to upholding the integrity of our assessment processes and ensuring that learners are fairly evaluated based on established standards,” added Mabona.

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