Have we made a grave mistake?

Universities, which now supply about 98% of all new teachers for the schooling system, have in the past few years qualified fewer than a third of the teachers needed to replace those leaving the profession.

We know that teacher shortage is acute in some learning areas (such as literacy, mathematics, science and technology) and in some geographical regions (particularly in rural schools).

And we know there is a crisis looming in the supply of foundation phase mother-tongue teachers. Of the 6 029 students who were expected to graduate out of initial professional education of teachers programmes last year, only 200 were classified as ‘African” foundation phase — that is, only 3,3% of the potential new teachers for a sector that is critical for the quality of any other part of the system.

But do these facts provide a reason to say it was a policy error to move initial teacher education to universities and, in effect, to close down ­colleges of education?

Let’s consider some statistics. The National Teacher Education Audit of 1995 reported that there were, at that time, about 281 teacher education providers (101 of them state colleges of education and 25 of them public higher education institutions) with, collectively, 117 796 students enrolled for initial teacher education.

In contrast, in 2006 we were left with 24 public higher education institutions and one or two private providers, with a total of 27 393 students enrolled for initial teacher education. That is, we are left with less than 10% of teacher education providers, and only 23% of students enrolled for initial teacher education. Is this a cause for concern; did we make a mistake in closing down colleges of education?

Before we get swept away by these figures, we need to take account of the overall condition of colleges of education at the time of the national audit.

Many were tiny operations with fewer than 20 students; more than 50% were run by NGOs and other agencies of this kind (such as faith-based organisations, communities or benevolent societies), with no public accountability, a serious lack of administrative capacity and no proper recognition agreements for the ‘qualifications” they issued.

State colleges of education fell under provincial departments of education and many offered teacher education that was barely more than a repetition of secondary education.

A significant proportion (perhaps as high as 70%) of students in colleges of education had no intention of becoming teachers and no commitment to the ideals of the profession. There was an oversupply of ‘qualified” teachers and even those who wanted to teach were lucky if they managed to secure a teaching post. In subsequent years ‘qualified” teacher unemployment became rife.

For many students the only form of affordable tertiary education available to them was the local college of education. Teacher education in state colleges of education was expensive, costing the state more than four times per capita per annum of the cost of an ordinary BA student at a university.

Overall, despite the existence of a few pockets of excellence and innovation, the quality of teacher education was poor, with outdated and irrelevant curricula, appallingly low academic standards and a pervasive lack of professionalism or commitment to the ideals of the teaching profession. A convincing case had been made for what the national audit called ‘system reconstruction”.

So, by 2002, initial teacher education had been moved into higher education and all colleges of education had been ‘incorporated” into universities and technikons.

A hoped-for advantage was that the quality of initial teacher education would be dramatically improved.

One aspect of the attainment of quality initial teacher education depends on more than the actual programme: once teacher education students are in a university there is the opportunity for them to escape the typical suffocating parochialism of a college of education and to mix with a diverse range of other higher education students.

This can contribute to the broader education of our future school­teachers.

In addition, providers of teacher education are now publicly accountable, as is demonstrated by the current review of teacher education programmes by the Higher Education Quality Committee.

However, drawbacks have emerged. Admission requirements for university study are far more stringent than those for the erstwhile colleges of education. In effect, this has considerably reduced the pool of school-leavers eligible for initial teacher education programmes.

Not only have the costs to individuals and their supporters of teacher education increased enormously (many colleges of education were free or had very low fees), but the migration of teacher education into universities has concentrated places of learning largely in urban areas. The 101 erstwhile state colleges of education were geographically dispersed across the country with, by and large, a college within daily commuting distance of most students. But once teacher education is concentrated in urban areas the cost of accommodation doubles the cost to individuals and their supporters.

Furthermore, poor families and communities are dependent on the labour of their younger members — particularly those at the typical ages of initial teacher education. The local college of education en­abled students to stay at home and contribute to the maintenance of the household during their studies, but once they were removed to study far from home this was lost. A further consideration is that once young people move away from their homes in rural areas and taste the delights of urban lifestyles they are likely to be reluctant to return to rural areas.

Such factors are possible explanations for two of the main elements of the current teacher shortages:the poor supply of teachers to rural schools and the dramatic decline in the numbers of young African women training as foundation phase teachers.

Again, does this imply that it was a mistake to close colleges of education?

The national department of education has acknowledged the issue of the costs to individuals. The recently implemented Fundza Lushaka bursary scheme provides a full-cost bursary for students training as teachers in particular areas of need. And the linking of the bursary to a service contract not only provides the department with a way of projecting the number of new teachers who will become available for employment in the coming years, but also provides the recipient of such a bursary with a reliable prospect of employment when they graduate.

On the issue of the depletion of rural areas of their most energetic members, we can ask to what extent this is to be placed at the door of the demise of colleges of education. We know that one of the consequences of development is increasing urbanisation and that it is young people who tend to be most attracted to urban living.

The issue of the shortage of qualified teachers for rural schools can best be met, not by turning the clock back to re-establishing colleges of education, but by other means, such as service contracts.

We all know that a major unresolved development issue for us at this time is the quality of schooling for the majority of our population. Such quality depends crucially on the quality of teachers and the training they received. Whatever the drawbacks in moving initial teacher education into universities, in my view we should hold on to the vision of quality teacher education, which underpinned this move, and try by other means to solve the problems that have arisen.

We need to work to ensure that in harmony with university-based initial teacher education, the proposed continuing professional teacher development system (to be managed by the South African Council for Educators) and the Higher Education Quality Committee review of programmes will lead progressively to the improvement of the quality teacher education in our country.

Wally Morrow is an academic and the former chair of the ministerial committee on teacher education

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Wally Morrow
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