Honey, I shrunk the classroom

The incoming government has promised to cut class sizes in schools. Cornia Pretorius and Primarashni Gower report

South Africa’s poorest learners can definitely look forward to one major school reform under a Jacob Zuma-led government—smaller class sizes.

The Mail & Guardian has learned that the government is to earmark more than R2-billion in the next three years for the creation of thousands of new teaching posts in a move to improve the quality of education in schools with more than 40 children per class.

The Education Department confirmed last week that more teachers are to be employed to ensure smaller classes. This intervention will benefit the poorest 60% of schools and single-teacher schools with big classes.

Wordwide, experts believe that fewer learners per class massively enhances both learning and teaching.

In South Africa the national average number of children per state-paid teacher is 34 to one. But about 6 000 schools, or 23%, have an average of 45 pupils per classroom, according to the education department’s 2008 statistics. Even larger classes are reported in some rural areas.

Education Minister Naledi Pandor recently told the M&G that she was delighted with the envisaged changes to the teacher allocation model.

“Next year we will have increased numbers of teachers—I’m so pleased I won that battle. We’ll have fewer learners in classes.”

The “post-distribution model” has been tested in the Free State and will also be piloted in the Eastern Cape before negotiations with teachers’ unions take off. The upshot is that some schools will lose teaching staff, while others gain.

An earlier attempt to redistribute posts, in 1995, was widely seen as failing to benefit poor schools. Teachers’ unions hope that changes in the method of calculating the provisioning of posts will also address ongoing concerns about teachers’ workloads and the need for smaller classes in grade one and two in particular to ensure that children master basics such as reading, writing and mathematical concepts.

Firoz Patel, the education department’s deputy director general of system planning and monitoring, said the allocation of posts will incorporate curriculum requirements as well as take account of the physical size of classrooms and how many learners they can accommodate.

He said that for 2010-2011 R250-million has been earmarked for the creation of an additional 1 257 posts to reduce class sizes in poor and small schools, while for the following year R1.8-billion will be allocated to create an additional 7 180 posts across all the provinces.

“The posts will not form part of the pool of posts distributed through the post-distribution model but will be held aside in a separate pool by the provincial departments of education,” Patel said.

“It will firstly alleviate the learner-educator ratio in one-person schools with more than 40 learners and no-fee schools which have more than 40 learners in classrooms, with due consideration given to the available physical space.”

John Pampallis, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development, said that although wealthy schools are in a position to employ more teachers using private funds, it makes sense for the department to provide more teachers to poorer schools.

Schools with multi-grade classes—one teacher teaching many grades in one class—are “problematic, as teachers can’t give much attention to classes”, Pampallis said.

He said that apart from employing more teachers, more can be done to ease the burden on teachers already in service.

Russell Wildeman, an education researcher at Idasa, welcomed the move as “bold”, but said questions had to be asked about which schools would lose posts.

“If schools are wrongly classified into the [less poor] quintiles four and five but the community is patently poor and they lose teachers, parents will not be in a position to replace them.

“The new system will benefit a small number of schools, while a similar number of schools will be disadvantaged. The poor will be punished for being poor.”

Wildeman said the quintile system should be scrapped and the government should invest in the provision of quality basic education for all.

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which has been dissatisfied with the way in which posts have been allocated, welcomed the principle underpinning the new model. Spokesperson John Lewis said the model would allow for a more equitable distribution of posts to benefit poor schools.

But Lewis warned that a change in the allocation of posts will raise issues about teacher development and training, including the retraining of unemployed teachers to take up some of the 8 000 positions to be created.

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