Destination Education (#2)

By Emma van der Vliet and Justine Joseph



4. Teacher training, knowledge and confidence

Every person we interviewed noted that many South African teachers feel overwhelmed by the crisis in education and by a sense of hopelessness.

Sam Christie, director of South African Innovative Learning Intervention (SAILI), an organisation that links academically talented students with well-functioning, low-fee state schools, claimed that the most critical problem in local education is the entrenched expectation of failure among educators and learners alike; the sense our education system is “broken” beyond repair.

Similarly, in a stinging statement on the state of education in our schools in 2012, Jonathan Jansen, the rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Free State reported that “University lecturers will tell you that, in their experience, students over the years have gotten weaker even as the matriculation results on the outside get stronger”.

Just a few weeks later, Mamphela Ramphele was quoted in the Cape Argus as saying that South African “schooling today [is] worse off than the ‘gutter education’ the youth of 1976 gave their lives to overthrow”. But it’s not only the learners who are behind. Dr Martin Prew, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development, asserts that the “appalling performance of learners is more understandable when compared with research… into teacher knowledge tests”.

Dr Prew refers to tests undertaken by the Integrated Education Programme and published by JET Education Services in 2007. Of 154 teachers assessed on grade-six level Maths tasks, 96% failed to get the 50% pass mark, and the mean across all 154 teachers was a mere 26%. Similarly, JET’s 2011 National School Effectiveness Study (NSES) report shows that teachers are ill-equipped to teach Maths, even at primary school level.

When five simple grade-six Maths tasks were given to the Maths teachersin the sample, the results (though not conclusive) pointed to a worryingly poor level: two thirds of teachers could only answer three of the questions; only 12% could answer all five.

Since teachers were themselves unable to cope with the more difficult tasks, it’s unsurprising that “the overwhelming majority of South African teachers of Mathematics avoid topics which are in any way challenging,” says the report, thus broadening gaps in learner knowledge. Insecurity also limits the ways in which teachers teach. Those without a strong content understanding are less likely to welcome challenging questions from learners that risk exposing their own ignorance. Such teachers are more likely to favour unquestioning rote-learning and traditional, non-interactive “chalk and talk” techniques.

Clearly there is a need for better training and subject knowledge. But there is also a need for more teachers. The National Development Plan (NDP) states that one of the main objectives is to reduce class sizes, which impact learner performance. “Small classes allow teachers to give more attention to individual learners,” says the Plan. “In South Africa, for every teacher there are 33 learners, compared to Botswana where the ratio is 1:22, one of the lowest in the world.”

That said, it’s not enough to simply train more teachers or for existing teachers to gain higher qualifications. According to the NDP, teachers certified as qualified have gone from 54% in 1990 to 94%, but outcomes are still poor. Therefore, “South Africa needs to improve the quality of teacher training, and recruit higher calibre candidates”.

Possible teacher-related innovation spaces

The teacher challenge cannot be addressed simply. According to the South African National Development Plan, the solution could include:

  • Employing more teachers. The South African Department of Basic Education estimates that to achieve the same ratio as Botswana, the public sector has to employ 160 000 more teachers
  • Attracting and retaining teachers, for instance through bursaries for further study and a pay structure that encourages them to remain in the profession
  • Recognising teachers for their efforts. Teaching should be a highly valued profession
  • Strengthening content knowledge, particularly in the subjects of Maths and Science. Attention should be given to the continuing development of teachers and the promotion of professional standards
  • Recruiting foreign teachers as a short- to medium-term measure, and offering work permits to foreign teacher graduates at South African universities
  • Exposing teachers to technology
  • Exploring innovative approaches to attracting and preparing teachers, such as professionals from other areas entering teaching (second-career professionals), on-the-job training, and fast-track entry systems for experienced professionals


5. Parental and community engagement

Parental engagement is a related educational problem that needs attention. It’s a big intervention gap because parents aren’t getting involved in appraising, commenting on and therefore transforming their children’s school experiences.

This is probably because many parents in South Africa don’t see themselves as customers of a service provided by the government and the Department of Basic Education.

Perhaps it’s still the apartheid legacy and a perceived power imbalance, but they won’t go into schools and complain. Many of these parents don’t have much education themselves and so don’t know how to evaluate what or how their children are taught.

“Performance generally improves where parents are involved and accountable in the schools,” says the NDP, but also adds that, “[m]any school governing bodies are hampered by parents’ lack of expertise and social status relative to school staff.”

So schools should be accountable to parents, and parents should be accountable for the behaviour, attitude, attendance and work ethic of their children. But there are social issues that get in the way – single parenting, community unrest, lack of transport, or lack of money for transport to get to the school and engage. These and other psychosocial problems affect parents and learners alike, leading to low self-esteem and little hope for the future.

“It is difficult to get students to believe in themselves when they haven’t had the opportunity to do so before,” Phadiela Cooper, principal of the Centre of Science and Technology school in Khayelitsha told Molly Blank, who wrote for the Mail & Guardian. “A lack of self-confidence is not surprising if you are raised in a place where there is little hope and opportunity, which is also why it takes extraordinary men and women, such as the principals and teachers I met, to support young people.”

One such example is Nelson Ma’Afrika, who leaves his school, Masiphumelele High, open all weekend and until 8pm on weekdays, “so that the pupils, who live in this congested Cape Town township have a safe, quiet place to study.” The engagement spreads even further with community members providing security and watching over the school, says Blank.

The result? The school’s matric results have increased from 28% to 85% in seven years. It makes sense that the NDP recommends “[developing] a strong sense of community ownership, encouraging community to assist in school nutrition, vegetable gardens and preventing theft and vandalism.”


6. The importance of writing in class

The 2012 NEEDU report by the independent National Education Evaluation and Development Unit stresses the educational importance of writing, and states that “in language and the content subjects, learners should write at least four times a week.”

This would add up to around two pages per week for Grade 1 learners, increasing to four or so pages a week in Grade 3. But perhaps due to overworked teachers and the ease of multiple-choice testing – these page counts are not being met.

Although the average number of pages written per week in Grade 1 is around two or more in 11 of the 15 districts visited, there is inadequate progression as learners move through the Grades. In only two districts did the average quantities of writing approach the norms described above for all three grades.”

This is concerning, because sufficient writing is necessary to develop higher cognitive functions, such as inference, analysis and interpretation. That’s why it is needed systematically from the earliest years of school. Without this, how could learners ever be able to catch up and progress academically in later years?

Possible writing innovation spaces:

After-school and weekend tutoring programmes, such as those run all over South Africa by IkamvaYouth (learn more here), have yielded extremely encouraging results. Learners wanting to sign up for the programme don’t need to have good marks to start off with – the only requirement is that they attend at least 75% of the sessions. Yet despite this open entry policy, IkamvaYouth achieved an 89% matric pass with 64% of these being Bachelor’s passes.

Exposure to reading can also have a significant positive impact on writing skills. Innovative initiatives, such as the FunDza Literary Trust have developed novel ways of encouraging high school learners to read by hooking them on pacy, contemporary, serialised stories available for next to nothing on their cellphones, including basic feature phones. They’re also developing new writers who submit their own stories to the FunDza platform, some whom attend writing workshops to develop their talents further. And judging from the excited responses of their loyal and growing following, it’s working.

Go here for ← Destination Education (Part 1)

Inside | Emma van der Vliet and Justine Joseph

Emma van der Vliet

Dr Emma van der Vliet is a teacher, writer and former coordinator of the Center for Educational Innovations (CEI) hub in South Africa. She also has a Masters in creative writing, a PhD in Film and Media Studies, two published novels and some very lucky kids who get to call her Mom.


She’s a scientist by training, but editor of Inside|Out by profession. She has a Bachelor of Science (Medical) Honours from the University of Cape Town and 10 years experience as a health and science journalist. She was a Mondi Magazine Award finalist and the international winner of the 2006 Novo Nordisk Media Prize for Excellence in Diabetes Writing. In 2011 she co-authored The Story of the Fly and How it Could Save the World with enviro-entrepreneur Jason Drew. She’s contributed to various publications including Shape, Men’s Health, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Oprah Magazine, Discovery and Hip2B2.



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