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Half our teachers will retire by 2030 — what about those who’ll remain?

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Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

Of all of the students signing up to take B.Ed degrees, only one out of five achieved more than 50% for maths in matric. We don’t just have a teacher shortage crisis. We have a teacher quality crisis.

South African education is facing a severe teacher shortage within the next decade. More than half the current workforce is over the age of 55 and due to retire by 2030.

By the time our reading panel hopes to have all our children reading, we will only have 45% of our teachers left to teach. As is sadly typical in our bimodal system, this problem is worse in areas of socio and economic deprivation — the vast majority of teachers approaching retirement are based in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

We have far more English-speaking teachers than we need, and far too few Zulu-speaking teachers. Teacher-to-pupil ratios in these schools and communities are staggeringly high for a country at our level of development. In 2015, roughly half of Grade 5 learners in South Africa were in classes larger than 40.

By comparison, in Morocco, 21% of learners were in classes of more than 40, while in Indonesia and Jordan this was true for only 15% of learners. While much of this has to do with inefficient teacher utilisation and timetabling, the forthcoming wave of retirements is likely to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Few recruits

The challenge worsens when we shift our focus from demand to supply. Teaching is not considered an attractive career in terms of salary or progression, and as a result, there are simply not enough young matriculants signing up to study teaching. Only 10.5%, on average, sign up for B.Ed degrees. Only half of those who graduate go on to teach in public schools.

We know that this is yet another symptom of the legacy of apartheid. Under-resourced and disadvantaged communities have not had enough time, money or support to make up for the years that the locusts took — our state system is overwhelmed by the deficit and straining to make up the backlog only exaggerated in recent years by the pandemic.

The focus, at the moment, is squarely on policies to increase enrolment and raise the bar for teachers entering the profession. Improved standards to qualify for a B.Ed, improved teacher training and degrees, increasing the number of applicants enrolling and more controversial measures such as postponing the retirement age and introducing non-qualified graduates as teachers are all policy options under discussion.

Maths conundrum

But here’s the real humdinger. Of all of the students signing up to take B.Ed degrees, only one out of every five achieved more than 50% for maths when they wrote matric. This is far worse than their contemporaries who took up other degrees — more than half of those matriculants achieved 50% or more for maths.

A study in 2008 found that maths specialist teachers averaged 66% in a Grade 6 primary maths test. The same study showed that the average score for a teacher taking a Grade 6 language test was 55%. We know from the oft quoted PIRLS data that 78% of learners can’t read for meaning.

We don’t just have a teacher shortage crisis. We have a teacher quality crisis.


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Improving university standards (entry and degree completion), pre-service teacher training and initial teacher training are all helpful policy discussions when considering the pipeline of emerging teachers. But what is to be done to continue to support and develop those already in practice?

The experience of Education Partnerships Group (EPG) in leadership and teacher development has taught us that supporting school leaders is the best place to start if we want to systematically strengthen the quality of teaching across the country. Evidence shows that there is a direct path between good leadership and student outcomes: 60% of student impact is due to combined principal and teacher effectiveness, with principals accounting for 25%.

Lack of training and skills

However, many principals lack the necessary training and skills to support high-quality teaching and learning processes in their schools. If we’re going to improve teaching, we need to support principals as effective leaders of instruction.   

For the past five years, EPG’s Instructional Leadership Institute has been training school leaders across the country, equipping principals with the skills and tools they need to develop their teachers and deliver better learner outcomes — with a focus on under-resourced communities.

The Institute coaches principals on key levers of school improvement. Through in-person training, and monthly in-school coaching sessions, principals learn how to build staff and student culture, observe lessons and give constructive developmental feedback, deliver excellent professional development sessions, and develop a data-driven culture of teaching and learning.

There has been a marked improvement in school culture, and remarkable gains in outcomes particularly in primary schools: annual systemics indicate that Grade 3 and Grade 6 maths and language outcomes have improved both in relative and absolute terms. There are other organisations providing similar support, with similar success. Edufundi, Common Good, Acorn Education and Funda Wande all employ coaches to work directly with teachers and leaders to great effect, focusing on the core business of running a school — teaching and learning.

Providing principals with the tools to develop their teachers is a proven and scalable approach that can be deployed quickly to improve quality teaching. Principals also need the wider levers of the education system to work in unison though, to support and reinforce their efforts to drive excellence.

Shortage crisis

There is a shortage crisis, and we do need more teachers. We need to seize this unique opportunity with so many entering the system at once, and provide them with quality pre-service training. But, we cannot do so at the risk of ignoring those currently in the system. These teachers need proven methods of support — like feedback, coaching and data — to help them to continue to hone their craft.

In addition to this support, our teachers, principals and government officials need targets focused on learner achievement, with real and measurable accountability that actively drives high standards and excellent outcomes.

We manage what we measure. As I noted in a previous column, there is a woefully poor focus in our country on whether our children are actually learning. In order to harness the support of circuit managers and school governing bodies (SGBs) effectively, we need to shift the focus in our system from measuring inputs (curriculum coverage, policy adoption etc) to measuring outcomes.

Turning our attention to learner outcomes has the potential to redirect the system’s resources and efforts to indicators that matter, like teacher quality — ultimately leading to stronger leadership, better teaching and improved outcomes. DM

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  • Sam van Coller says:

    Why does the Government not listen to people like the author of this article. Unequal education is the linchpin of the increasing extreme overall inequality which in turn is the linchpin of the social disintegration that is taking place in our country

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