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A shrinking pool

The question of whether South Africa is producing enough new teachers is the subject of hot debate. But it is one that we need clear answers to, particularly in the light of our national aspiration to provide quality education for all.

The lack of clarity is causing a dangerous limbo for vital planning processes for teacher education, both at policy and funding level.

A chapter in the Human Sciences Research Council’s Human Resources Development Review 2003 sheds some light on the issue. The attrition rate out of the teaching force (teachers leaving the system) is between 5 and 5,5% a year, well within international norms. We have about 350 000 government-employed teachers and an additional 100 000 employed by school governing bodies or independent schools. We, therefore, need to produce at least 22 500 teachers a year.

In an attempt to monitor teacher supply, the deans of education of the 22 higher education institutions (HEIs) that offer initial teacher-education programmes have collected information annually about the numbers of students registered, and the numbers expected to complete in that year. In 2003, about 5 000 were expected to complete, in 2004 about 7 000, and for this year the expected number is about 6 000. While these figures are only approximate, they are enough to conclude that the system is under-producing about 16 500 teachers a year.

Clearly, then, we are not training enough teachers to sustain the schooling system. At best, we are producing a third of the new teachers we need simply to replace those leaving the profession.

Despite this, powerful voices continue to declare that there is no looming shortage of teachers. There are several arguments to back their view. If we are prepared to employ unqualified teachers and/or set the norm for learner:teacher ratios at, say, 100:1 instead of at 35:1, then there is no shortage of teachers. Although no education officials are bold (or foolish) enough to admit this in public, there is evidence that there are already a number of unqualified teachers employed in our schools, and that the learner:teacher ratio in some parts of the system already approaches 100:1.

Provincial departments of education constantly claim there is no shortage of teachers. They argue that there is a large pool of qualified teachers not currently employed in the schooling system, but who persistently enquire about teaching posts. Thus, the Eastern Cape, for example, has not advertised any open application teaching posts over the past five years.

But, when asked for hard proof of this ”large pool”, the provinces are hard pressed to provide it. Only one province has a register of such teachers. The provinces also admitted that when they look for a teacher, on average they make between eight and 10 inquiries before they find a suitably qualified teacher.

While these arguments fly back and forth, the system of producing new teachers flounders. The state subsidy for education programmes in HEIs is pegged at the lowest level — below management science, communication and computer science. In the stringent funding climate in higher education, this is a serious disincentive for HEIs to continue to offer teacher education.

And it’s not just the HEIs that are feeling the pinch. In the past most students in teacher training were provided with full-cost loans or bursaries. Currently, individuals and their supporters have to meet a high percentage of the costs of training themselves. The costs to individuals to attend an HEI have escalated dramatically, and teacher education has become unaffordable for most who would traditionally have trained as teachers.

Positive steps need to be taken to remedy this situation. Data-gathering systems for teacher supply and demand need to be urgently and dramatically improved as a necessary condition for more adequate planning. For example, we need to know which phases or learning areas are experiencing the biggest shortages.

The subsidy level for initial teacher education programmes at public HEIs needs to be improved, and a national teacher-education loan scheme needs to be established. In addition, a national teacher career and recruitment centre needs to be established, with the tasks of monitoring teacher supply and demand, facilitating and promoting teacher recruitment and managing a teacher-education student loan scheme.

A schooling system needs a steady flow of newly qualified teachers in order to be maintained. Whatever the truth about the pool of qualified teachers currently not employed as teachers, it is itself a shrinking pool, and we are not training enough teachers to sustain the schooling system.

Wally Morrow is the former dean of education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the Eastern Cape

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Wally Morrow
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