Defend Truth


As long as teachers are innumerate, insecure and ill-prepared, our education system will fail


Dr Nick Taylor is senior research fellow at JET Education Services.

The South African school system grossly underperforms relative to the resources invested into education. Different forms of accountability within the school system may be helpful in raising levels of learning and narrowing the huge learning gap between children from middle-class and poor families.

The relationship between education policymakers and teachers is complex and indirect, entailing long lines of accountability that are stretched very thinly over a nested series of national and provincial departments of education, district offices, schools and finally, classrooms.

Under these circumstances, policymakers attempt to achieve accountability through inspections, monitoring procedures and reporting systems intended to ensure that the rules and regulations are being followed. But *bureaucratic accountability does not guarantee results; it concerns itself with procedures and is effective only when procedures are known to produce the desired outcomes, and when compliance is easily measured and secured.

The problem with the bureaucratic solution to the accountability dilemma in education is that effective teaching is not routine, learners are not passive and questions of practice are not simple, predictable or standardised.

Professionals are obligated to do whatever is best for the client; not what is easiest, most expedient, or even what the client might want. They are also obligated to base a decision about what is best for the client on available knowledge – derived from personal experience as well as from clinical and research knowledge acquired by the occupation as a whole and represented in professional journals, certification standards and speciality training.

Finally, professionals are required to take into account the unique needs of the individual clients in fashioning their judgements about what strategies or treatments are appropriate. These norms are not met in two important ways in the South African school system.

First, it has become increasingly clear that university faculties of education are not preparing new teachers to exercise professional judgement. For example, recent research indicates that, on entry to university, around half of student teachers from three campuses in 2017 and seven campuses in 2018 who participated in a pilot test were unable to achieve 50% on a simple maths test, which draws items from the primary school curriculum. These students did particularly poorly on questions involving fractions, decimals, ratios and proportions – topics which underlie high school mathematics.

The most disturbing finding come to by Lynne Bowie et al, p31, is that, after four years of study, final-year students at three of these universities had made very little progress on learning these fundamental concepts, with the large majority still performing at around 40% and less.

When insecure and ill-prepared teachers are placed under the pressure of curriculum coverage, there is an inevitable drift towards curriculum mimicry or the pretence of compliance where teachers appear to be conforming to coverage requirements without actually doing so in practice.

To combat this tendency, according to Jonathan Jansen, the specific focus of teacher competence should be less on behaviours and more on subject matter knowledge, and pedagogical (how to teach), content knowledge which, research illustrates, is the bridge between curriculum coverage and learner outcomes.

The second way in which professional competence among teachers is undermined in the South African school system is that, no matter how well educated teachers are, the lack of school leadership and management, coupled with the demanding environment, has the potential to demotivate the most dedicated and competent young teachers.

Simply put, the good intentions behind the legislation that governs the recruitment, development and promotion of teachers are widely perverted by nepotistic and corrupt practices, at great expense to the quality of schooling, particularly in schools serving poor families and, ultimately, the nation.

As a result, schools and teachers have a poor public image and, under these conditions, who would want to be a teacher? Consequently, education faculties have to make do with the academically weakest students, whom they educate inadequately, and the cycle continues. Building a virtuous cycle, such as that maintained by countries with high-quality schooling, starts with selecting the brightest and most highly motivated students into initial teacher education (ITE), and providing them with the best theoretical and practical training; supporting them to exercise effective pedagogical practices in their classrooms; and identifying and developing the best leadership skills to take the system to higher levels of performance.

High-performing school systems teach us that these goals take decades to achieve, as a critical mass of competent teachers builds up in the system and the status of teaching gradually rises, within an environment of policy consistency and scrupulously sound governance.

The role of the private sector

Regarding the two great problems that beset South African schooling – poor human resource management, of which the most obvious manifestation is the inefficient use of time, and weak teacher subject and pedagogical knowledge – the former is, in the first instance, a political problem characterised by a reluctance to demand that civil servants fulfil the terms of their contracts. This is a problem that only government, as the employer of civil servants, can address.

However, the second problem – weak educator knowledge and skills – is an issue to be shared between universities, government and the private sector. The first point to note is that the knowledge foundation of the large majority of teachers is extremely weak. For example, most grade six maths teachers have an inadequate grasp of multiplication. This means that, in order to get them to the required level to teach the grade six maths curriculum, they need to be nurtured into a very good understanding of multiplication and division, then fractions and decimals, then ratio and, finally, they are ready to undertake the topic that underlies the high school curriculum: a flexible understanding of proportional reasoning.

Clearly, this process will take more than a couple of afternoon workshops scattered over the year. This is not to say that we should not work with in-service teachers in order to build their knowledge and skills, but what this point emphasises is that we can only expect modest progress in upskilling teachers through in-service training (continuous professional development).

The corporate and non-profit sectors have been actively involved in teacher development for over three decades, but what is there to show for all this investment of funds and effort? Do we have tried-and-tested models that have been demonstrated to work? The answer is, at best, maybe, some of the time, under certain conditions.

A big weakness of all activity in the continuous professional development (CPD) terrain is that it is largely under-researched and unevaluated, and therefore, we have learnt very little from our efforts. Arguably, the priority with respect to CPD is knowledge building through research and development, monitoring and evaluation, and a fearless attitude towards reporting the results of programme evaluations, however discouraging they may be. Less-than-successful programmes offer important learning opportunities for the entire field, if only to discourage other investors from trying the same idea, and wasting their time and money.

Finally, given the fact that the potential impact of CPD on school performance is likely, at best, to be very modest, the primary focus of efforts to improve teacher effectiveness must lie in the terrain of ITE. Not only are students in ITE far younger than the average in-service teacher – and hence far more amenable to learning new concepts and skills – but they have far more time, four years of full-time study, to do so.

Surely in that time, our universities can develop the required language and mathematical skills needed for South African classrooms? This is an area in which corporate donors have largely confined their efforts to providing bursaries to student teachers. This is important work and should be continued, but an even more urgent priority is to work with teacher educators to improve the quality of teacher undergraduate education. DM

The full version of this article was first published in the Trialogue Business in Society Handbook 2019, available for download from

*The term “bureaucratic accountability” and associated commentary were drawn from a paper originally published in 1988 by the prominent educationist Linda Darling-Hammond. This was not made clear in the initial publication of this article and the publishers apologise for this oversight.



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