Who will teach the teachers?

Education development centres could be the key to much-needed teacher support

THE need for a rethink on the ways in which support for qualified teachers is offered and made available is acute. The first instance of this need is provided by figures quoted in the 1999 Education for All 2000 Assessment: South Africa Report. Examples of these figures are:

- More than 60% of grade four learners, from all provinces, failed the literacy task;

- 90% of grade four learners failed the numeracy task; and

- 62% of these learners failed the life skills task.

Failure means scoring less than 50%. (These figures originate from the South African MLA Survey, 1999.)

Second, there are strong indications that the provincial Teacher Support, Utilisation and Development (TSUD) programmes are not meeting teachers’ needs. The dysfunctionality of the Gauteng Department of Education’s TSUD system was acknowledged in 1997. And in the Northern Province, a single inspector for the Bolobedu district has to attend to 170 schools, a number which normally requires six people (The Sunday Independent, April 16 2000). The new developmental appraisal system, agreed to by all parties in 1998, is unimplementable owing to the fact that the needs of educators, which are identified during the appraisal process, cannot be met.

To this should be added the strain which the laggard matric results impose upon the country’s entire education system, as well as the very difficult physical and social conditions under which learning and teaching are supposed to take place.

These are but instances of why educator support and development have to be reconceptualised.

A regrettable truth is that universities, technikons and colleges can and will play almost no role in supporting already qualified teachers. These institutions have as their core and dominant function the provision of initial teacher training. And the rationalisation of teacher education by abolishing the colleges and establishing 25 “providers of teacher training” (as the University of Natal’s Ben Parker, now seconded to the national Department of Education, has put it), will not offer teachers in schools greater support. All teachers are now required to acquire, over a five-year period, is the equivalent of a four-year qualification through one of these providers or its franchised satellites in rural areas. Such remote tuition will apply to the greater parts of the country, for there are no university presences in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape apart from outposts of Unisa and Vista. And huge tracts of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Northern Province as well as the North-West are long distances away from those essentially urban creatures, universities and technikons.

The attitudes of universities, technikons and colleges are shaped by those factors which confirm the gulfs between themselves and the schools. These institutions are staffed by people who either did not want to teach in schools or else have left school teaching. The courses which they offer are inclined to lose touch with classroom needs but, more seriously, the courses which these institutions offer usually have closed intellectual horizons.

This occurs when the qualifying term “educational” is placed before bodies of knowledge such as philosophy, history or forms of theory. Student teachers are inducted into stable and fixed academic structures and are not encouraged, as a rule, to push beyond the range of what has been decided for them that they need to know.

Furthermore, those teacher education institutions which have abandoned that invasive, alien plant of an educational “philosophy” called, euphemistically, fundamental pedagogics, now do as the “liberal” institutions have done for decades: a little bit of this educational theory, a little bit of that educational philosophy and then, “You make up your mind about what you wish to allow to influence your teaching style.” This is quite clearly a recipe for vulnerability to long-standing practice.

The reality is that when newly qualified teachers arrive at a school, they have to adapt immediately to each school’s methods of assessment, discipline, management and the control of learning. And that is where the real ideological grip on educational practice is located. Providers of initial training are helpless to intervene at these levels of structural practice. The providers’ notion of teacher support is to be found in the vulgar term “upgrading”, and that means having teachers come on to their premises to undergo their courses and to be assessed by their criteria, and then returned to the classrooms where they are expected to go and do a better job.

The argument here essentially urges downplaying the importance of initial teacher education and recommends an emphasis at national level on teacher development and support.

This emphasis needs to be accompanied by the creation of a new presence in the educational field: powerful and influential educational development centres (EDCs). Their role in the rural areas in particular but, later, also in all areas would be to intervene by providing appropriate support and development for teachers at schools.

EDCs were first mooted in the 1992 National Education Policy Initiative (NEPI) report on teacher education. There it was suggested that EDCs adopt a broad definition of the term “teacher” to include all those who offered tuition and systematic advice and guidance. This would allow EDCs to be multi-purpose centres, catering to the needs of education, primary health, NGOs, adult educators and all else of that kind in the region.

EDCs would, therefore, not concern themselves with initial forms of training, but would work with provincial officials, schools, NGOs, community colleges and adult centres to meet needs generated by the working situations of educational practitioners. Therefore, all courses and workshops would have to be designed together with those practitioners, and the EDC staff would work with their colleagues in the field to assess the efficacy of the training.

The mandate of such EDCs would have to include a strong interventionist element once the needs of the region or zone had been identified. They would also require space for experimentation and innovation so as to effect significant change in educational practice.

Education is an essentially conservative process and is very slow to respond to the needs for deep change. And that inclination towards retention of the old has been reinforced by universities, colleges and technikons because they have been faithful to whatever education system was in force. Therefore, they have produced little educational thinking of note.

People’s education came from outside the walls of these institutions, as did the NEPI initiative. Though individuals from both colleges and universities, and some very few from technikons, played important roles in educational change and policy development, no innovative or fresh interventions in the present educational situation can be expected from these institutions. For example, only one member of an education policy unit has raised doubts about matric as a system.

It is common knowledge that matric ossifies and destabilises schooling, that its failures clog the resources for adult basic education and training, that it consumes a grossly disproportionate share of human effort, and that it renders the first years of higher education infantile. We all know that. But no real effort has been made to suggest alternatives which would make the abolition of that pernicious system possible.

EDCs, as newly created centres of educational energy, should have as their primary concern the educators in the field. Instead of funnelling scarce resources into the overrated and overblown focus of initial teacher training, significant resources are needed now to be redirected into the support and development of practising educators. Multi-purpose centres have long been fondly proposed from many quarters, for many good reasons. But they have never moved into the centre of implementable policy.

EDCs are one form of multi-purpose centre, and, in addition to those functions already outlined, they could serve as focuses for cultural activities, as language development units, as media centres producing local newspapers and radio channels, voter and health education sites as well as for many other regional needs.

EDCs would have to function within national education policy and as part of national intervention into provincial implementation and practice. But they would be without the historical baggage of all other educator support or training institutions.

Therefore EDCs would not view teacher development from the self-justifying perspective of the providers of initial training, but from another position, that of the mature, professional educator who has succeeded in a vocation as a result of experience, personal ability and support from colleagues, the system and the resources which have been made available to her. How is that achieved?

It should be noted that EDCs are not intended to replace teachers’ centres, which have a major role to play in refining and clarifying new policies, curricula and classroom techniques. Teachers’ centres are, in fact, aspects or elements within the concept of EDCs.

The education system needs a strong presence which is willing and able to train student representative councils, secretaries and school governors, which can establish constructive relations between schools and their circumambient communities, and which can link all stakeholders to address crime, HIV/Aids and other scourges.

It needs people who are willing to link with all agencies in the field to work with the yearning hopes of parents and the vibrant expectancies of the young. This will not come from provincial officials nor from the orthodox institutions of teacher education. Both are too remote from schools, and the latter exist in a paradigm that is too distant from an adequate understanding of the need for appropriate teacher support to adapt.

Amalgamation, rationalisation and incorporation of colleges with universities and technikons will reinforce merely the present nature and condition of these institutions in relation to educator support.

What is wanted is a new kind of presence, which combines the commitment and the grass-roots wisdom of a really good NGO with the applied intelligence of fieldworking educators. This can happen and can be made to work. And a beginning should be made in rural areas.

The establishment of a well-equipped centre, staffed by lively, bright and active people, could do wonders to assist those educators now working on farms, under trees, far from urban centres and without support. These centres would operate from the basis of whole school change, offering to the entire school community the opportunity to reorient and improve the quality of learning.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, May 17, 2000.

Michael Gardiner was head of English at the Johannesburg College of Education for many years, and now lectures at Vista University (Soweto)

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