Opinionista Melanie Smuts 4 April 2018

Bad education: It starts with how we train teachers

One of the best safeguards to ensuring a fair education system is making sure that all teachers have a similar level of capability. In a good system, a child in a rural poorer community and a child in a wealthier urban suburb should have an equally good teacher standing in front of them every day. But, when we look at the data on how teachers are trained in South Africa, it is clear that our system still sets teachers up for failure long before they even enter the classroom – and in the process further disadvantages the children they teach.

Before I paint the picture of how we train South African teachers, let me provide an overview of the consensus on good teacher training. Teacher quality is probably the most important starting point in the overall quality of an education system. Or, as it is often phrased: the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of the teachers in that system. Most good systems also know that teaching is a complex profession that requires specific skills and a very high degree of professionalism. A good teacher has sound content knowledge, is capable of simultaneously making multiple decisions, able to plan and is very emotionally intelligent. Good teacher training programmes have strict selection criteria and provide rigorous training that includes extended in-classroom practice that continues years after the teacher has qualified.

From a policy perspective, it is also important that teacher training is highly standardised, and fundamentally equal: that way all children are receiving a fundamentally more equal chance at learning. Some of the best systems – like Singapore – have only one teacher-training institute for the whole nation for exactly this reason. Equal training for teachers is one of the best safeguards for an equitable education system overall.

So, if this is the ideal situation: how do we fare in South Africa? Unfortunately, we have largely gone wrong at every turn.

Education remains one of the least selective faculties to gain admission to across all universities. This is partly because of teacher-shortages, partly because teachers earn less than other graduate professionals, partly due to the structures of education faculties themselves and the way that bursary schemes operate. So, instead of recruiting some of the best quality candidates for education, we are selecting some of the weakest who often have low motivation.

Once these students get into a university, the curriculum at the very best and the most under performing universities alike is neither rigorous nor very practical.

Recently, the Initial Teacher Education Research Project (ITREP) reviewed the programmes of five of South Africa’s universities and found that they “lack a strong underlying logic and coherence” and vary widely in their quality and focus on content knowledge and teaching practice. At one of South Africa’s most prominent universities, the study found that only 6% of the credits were allocated to literacy in the Foundation Phase B.Ed programme. In fact, very few of South Africa’s education faculties have a dedicated course focused on teaching reading. This is in a context where we have a 78% illiteracy rate nationally.

Spare a thought for universities, who are trying to maintain research outputs with dwindling funding, whilst taking in students who may not be primarily interested in teaching, while still trying to train teachers to go into extremely tough schooling conditions. But, many faculties still have not made enough of a switch and are still primarily geared towards training researchers rather than practitioners, even though the majority of students will become teachers, not academics. At best, education faculties (and teacher training) are surviving but not thriving.

The situation is bad enough at contact universities, where students study full-time. But 48% of new teachers, do not even access this level of support. Currently Unisa produces, on average, more teachers than all other teaching programmes combined. If contact universities are currently poorly equipped to train teachers, consider for a second what a non-contact university has available to prepare students?

Unisa’s fundamental ethos as an open distance-learning institute is to create access to further education for students who would have been unable to attain it otherwise. Unisa also sees the “student as the customer”. Non-selectiveness and client-driven education, which make sense for Unisa, are not ideal for training professionals meant to deliver a public good. Unisa is, in fact, working extremely hard to find large-scale solutions to this challenge. But no reasonable system would have allowed teacher training to be Unisa’s responsibility in the first place.

So, preparation for teachers is bad all-round. What happens once they become teachers?

Despite lowering selection criteria, the higher education system overall is still producing too few teachers, especially where they are needed. Take for instance one of the most important group of teachers: those responsible for teaching literacy in early grades. The Department of Higher Education estimates that universities need to produce 4,300 African mother-tongue-speaking Foundation Phase teachers every year just to replace the numbers that are leaving the profession. But, in 2012, the entire system graduated only 1,219 teachers of the 4,300 needed.

Once these poorly-qualified teachers enter the system they are likely to face over-crowded schools, who do not have teachers for some of the most important subjects where our most pressing issue – the literacy crisis – is supposed to be addressed. There are too few subject advisers in districts and school-based professional development is very limited. Imagine being a first-year teacher expected to teach a class of 50-plus students how to read with the preparation described above? It is a miracle we have any teachers surviving the profession at all.

Considering the state of our schools, and the legacy of education in the country we should be over-preparing our new generation of teachers, knowing what they need to undo. Instead, we are under-equipping them. And yet we blame these teachers for our poor results. Or Sadtu. Or parents. Or, worst of all, the children.

The good news is that, unlike other parts of the education system, teacher training is relatively susceptible to reform that will yield quick and positive results. Best of all is if government steps in and makes some sound and serious regulations about acceptable levels of training for teachers, such as the recent Minimum Requirements for Teacher Education Qualifications (MRTEQ) issued by the Department of Higher Education. Funding research-chairs at universities for areas that have strong research and teacher-training potential: such as literacy development in African Languages which is another area that could see long-term and positive gains immediately. And we need more initiatives like the wonderful Funda UJabule school in Soweto that not only provides its learners with quality home-language education, but also serves as a training lab-school for the education faculty students at the University of Johannesburg.

We have the resources to produce the kind of hero-educators from a generation ago who were politically inspiring and stood as pillars of their communities. We have lost that in this generation, but it is within our power to bring it back again. DM

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