Teachers of quality are vital for the state's new grade R policy to work.
When President Jacob Zuma addressed ANC supporters at the recent launch of the party's 2014 election manifesto, he promised to "implement radical socioeconomic transformation to meaningfully address poverty, unemployment and inequality".
The transformation process will "improve and expand education and training by making grade R compulsory, eradicating adult illiteracy and improving the quality of basic education up to the senior grade".
Political narratives tend to obfuscate the vital connections and empirical evidence that should underpin the optimal implementation of envisaged policy changes. The lofty promises the manifesto enunciated lack important details on the kinds of strategic processes and modalities that would need to be deployed if these specific outputs and milestones are to be tangibly achieved.
But the paucity of information on these key facets of the manifesto's envisaged transformation makes it difficult to determine how optimal implementation and sustainability will be realised. There is also a need to clarify how the envisaged changes would be integrated into current layers of governance.
It is against this backdrop that I find the policy on universal access to grade R problematic in vision and purpose, scope, rigour and praxis. The exponential increase in the enrolment of grade R since 2011 is commendable, but the elephant in the classroom is the quality of tuition there and of those entrusted to manage the system.
Any promises to introduce a pre-grade R (which would amount to two years of formal preschooling) and to make grade R compulsory will not yield the desired results if they do not address systemic deficiencies.
"Being compulsory" is not synonymous with quality, for many reasons.
First, the grade R offering currently happens at three diverse and unco-ordinated locations — public schools, community-based sites and independent schools. The credibility of these learning sites cannot be determined in terms of universally acceptable norms and standards for quality.
Second, the quality of curriculum offerings remains problematic relative to international benchmarks for quality and scholastic rigour.
Third, the organisation and governance at some of these preschool sites is nebulous and might not be commensurate with the universally acceptable minimum norms and standards in terms of risk management regimes.
Fourth, the qualifications and professional integrity of teachers entrusted to teach grade R cannot be ascertained and most are appointed based on their childcare experience. Delegates who attended the 2011 International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York unanimously agreed that "teachers are the single most important in-school ingredient when it comes to student achievement and that the quality of an education system rests on the quality of its teachers".
And fifth, the grade R policy on teacher recruitment, training and development is shallow regarding its minimum entrance requirements to teach, which specify a "higher certificate in grade R practices, [an] advanced certificate in grade R practices [or a] diploma in grade R practices". It is not explicit what the policy means by "grade R practices", and so this is an obscure indicator of quality.
South Africa has set the bar too low. As United States educationalists Linda Darling-Hammond and Gary Sykes have said, a "quick-fix" approach to addressing a teacher shortage is not sustainable and has calamitous consequences for young pupils.
In their 2003 journal article, "Wanted: A national teacher supply policy for education — the 'highly qualified teacher' challenge", they recommended using "new and rigorous alternate certification programmes based on careful selection, purposeful preparation, and intensive mentoring and practice teaching that are successful".
Highly qualified teachers allow school principals to focus on and strengthen professional guidance, to enhance tuition and regularly monitor classroom activities and the progression of pupils.
They can also promote parental involvement and implement new ideas to enhance quality education and use resources for infrastructure development.
Dutch educationalist Ype Akkerman shares this view, reminding us: "The quality of an education cannot exceed the quality of its teachers."
Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg's 2010 book, Finnish Lessons, attributes the secret of Finland's success to "its excellent teachers, of whom Finns are justifiably proud".
The country's teachers are required to possess master's degrees before being given their licence to teach — including primary school teachers.
The literature on teacher development confirms that "a bad selection decision can result in up to 40 years of poor teaching", Sahlberg wrote.
It follows that "making grade R compulsory" without fundamentally raising the quality of teachers and their teaching practices will undermine pupils' right to a quality education, perpetuate mediocrity and plunder the fiscus.
The US elementary education theorist William Ayers observed that "classrooms are yeasty places" and require professionally qualified teachers to manage them efficiently. Grade R represents the most vulnerable stage in the development of pupils. It cannot be entrusted to underqualified personnel.
Deficiencies in the depth of curriculum knowledge stunt pupils' scholastic development and future career options. Professions such as law and medicine apply stringent protocols for practice and only the most qualified and professionally competent enlist as practitioners. For education, the tendency is to opt for short cuts.
But there are no short cuts to quality education, which results from intelligent planning and hard work to ensure only qualified teachers who are "models of thoughtfulness and care; exemplars of problem-solving and decision-making" (as Ayers put it) are entrusted to teach.
Here, the government's envisaged partnership between universities and further education and training (FET) colleges to fast-track the training of grade R teachers and address severe shortages is flawed. For instance, the unequal terrain in which these institutions operate has the potential to complicate smooth co-operation on academic matters.
Both the credibility and the quality of FET colleges are questionable. According to the National Development Plan, the colleges are "ineffective [and] the output quality is poor". And their well-documented capacity problems have tarnished the profile of some of these institutions.
Research presented at the 2011 New York summit showed that "teachers in the 21st century need a deep knowledge base in their subject matter, as well as the skills to diagnose students' difficulties and examine the effectiveness of their own practice". It is doubtful that most FET colleges assist their students to reach that high level of skill.
A robust interrogation of political narratives is crucial to ensure that we do not create "supra-narratives" that negate the deployment of evidence-based interventions to transform governance. The policy on universal access to grade R requires more interrogation to unmask deeper layers that could potentially scupper optimal implementation.
Lebusa Monyooe is a director at the National Research Foundation. He writes here in his personal capacity