Multigrade schools and classrooms are the only means of formal education for 30% of primary school learners in the world.
Multigrade teaching and learning, where a single teacher manages more than one grade in her class, is widespread in South Africa. Think of the many farm schools and small rural schools, which have comparatively few learners and are often far from towns of any kind. Some provinces are working to reduce the numbers of such schools, especially farm schools, but recent research figures show that there is no significant decrease in the number of places where multigrade teaching and learning occur.
Because of the manner in which teaching posts are allocated to schools – through post provisioning criteria -those with small numbers of learners are allocated three, two or even one educator, no matter how many grades there are in the school. So learners are clustered into single classrooms; some have as many as four grades per educator.
To teach effectively under such conditions requires special skills and abilities from the educators, as well as particular kinds of behaviour from learners. And do communities and parents assist the schools in cases like this? A research project will be able to provide some answers to questions like that soon.
In contributing to this research project a colleague and I recently visited a multigrade school in one of the most remote parts of South Africa, up north near the border with Botswana.
The school has 32 learners from grade R to six and two educators. Here are my impressions of getting and being there.
This school is a long way from town, surrounded by yellow, beach-like sand with intermittent thorn bushes and occasional trees. The air is suffused with the rank and pungent odour of damp goat droppings and urine. Other forms of life are barely audible and hardly visible: houses are screened by the thorny bushes and the learners just emerge from them.
This school is at the end of 70km of a difficult and uncompromising road, with stretches of stony and iron-hard corrugations that seemed to push us backwards and make the car dance like a drop of water on a hot plate. Then there were sudden patches of sand that wrenched the steering wheel out of my hands and sucked the car down into softness. Herds of goats apparently waited for the car to arrive and then streamed across the road; sheep suddenly started to cross and then dithered undecidedly; the many donkeys gathered in clumps of 20 just around the bends where they rolled in the sand, nursed their foals or just stood or lay, immovably.
All this was in addition to the chickens and meercats that streaked across the road, not always successfully, and then there were the buses, lorries, bakkies and donkey-carts rattling along. And the cattle: this is ranching country.
The school has three rooms: two classrooms and a room for meetings and storage of documents. Uncompleted classrooms over the way are gradually crumbling down. The community got women builders to make two cottages for the teachers, who ordinarily live in town. With their low roofs and no ceilings, these become little ovens. They have cramped bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens in one. The school has electricity, but the kettle trips the switches, so we went without coffee and tea.
More significantly, the school has no photocopier (an essential tool for multigrade teaching) and there is no phone reception unless you hang the cellphone on a string
from a tree. There is no toilet on the school grounds, so you have to share the bushes with learners and the animals.
We asked a member of the school’s governing body if it was likely that the community would grow. She said: “Since HIV and Aids, we use condoms and that means few children.”
One teacher takes the foundation phase (grade R to three) and the other the grades four to six. We found that the intermediate phase (grades four to seven) educator had most to teach us (indeed, the other teacher had been there a month, from a monograde school) and so we set about learning techniques from an adept and competent teacher who had been doing this for 10 years.
What we learned from this teacher’s multigrade work made me admire her style, commitment and her organised grasp of how to make the best of this situation. Here you are on your own. The district officials do not understand multigrade education and can offer only rare routine visits. Workshops are directed at monograde teaching but these educators are glad to be called to workshops as it means contact with colleagues for a change.
Her lessons – we observed a literacy and a numeracy lesson on different days – began with giving worksheets (photocopied in town at her own expense) to two grades and then active teaching and facilitating with the other grade. All three grades explored aspects of the same theme. For example, learners were set to work on “expanded notation” at levels appropriate to their grade. This educator also differentiated between learners within the grades, giving both more and less demanding tasks to learners according to their abilities.
Of particular interest to us was the way in which she incorporated the grade five learners when they had completed their tasks into active participation, with the work being done by the grade six learners which, by this time, she was facilitating rather than instructing.
When this educator conducted a lesson in Setswana and then English on reading with all three groups, she combined grades five and six on the grounds that there is no reason to separate learners at this stage for reading, as they all should be able to read the same text. And indeed, we could not distinguish between them on the basis of grade, but we did notice how more fluently the girls read.
Another unusual element in this lesson was that, despite having enough textbooks for each learner, the educator made at least three learners share a book. This puzzled us but the educator explained that by doing so, she ensured that each learner followed in the text exactly where the reader was reading. This, she said, reduced the chances of inattention.
I asked why children worked so quietly and individually in their grade groups. She pointed out that in a multigrade classroom it is essential that one group does not disturb the others. This extends to spontaneous talk or comments by learners. In a monograde class, she said, she tolerates chatter and talk, but not in a multigrade situation.
And when it was pointed out that learners in groups were not openly assisting one another as is the case in much conventional group work, the educator declared that such practice merely masks what the learner truly understands and can do.
The school begins at 7.50am each morning. On one morning of our visit we arrived at 8.30am to find the school utterly silent. There were no teachers – we learned later that they had had transport problems – but every child was present, in her and his group and chair, quietly working at tasks that had been set at the end of the previous day. This continued until 9.30am when the teachers arrived.
My colleague and I spent four days at the school. After such time we were keen to return to our familiar environment but also sad to leave this brave educator. She gave us each a big hug and said how good it had been in that lonely spot to have visitors for “a whole week”.
Michael Gardiner is a senior researcher at the Centre for Education Policy Development in Johannesburg