No easy answers to teaching requirements

Gauteng’s MEC for education, Barbara Creecy (Lisa Skinner)

Gauteng’s MEC for education, Barbara Creecy (Lisa Skinner)

A Neotel-sponsored Mail & Guardian Business Breakfast, held on Wednesday in Johan- nesburg, examined whether the South African education system adequately prepares learners for life beyond the classroom.

The panel included Graeme Bloch, a senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection; Lynn Bowie, a lecturer at the mathematics education division at the Wits School of Education; Sunil Joshi, the managing director and chief executive of Neotel; and Barbara Creecy, Gauteng's MEC for education.

With South Africa ranked the second-to-worst country glob- ally when it comes to maths and science competency, it would be fair to say that education is once again under the spotlight. Although it is easy to point out the numerous educational chal- lenges in the country, the focus should be on finding practical solutions to remedy the situation on multiple fronts, the audience heard.

Get the basics right
"There is no doubt that the country needs to do a lot better in these subjects. While there are many examples of institutions doing great things for maths and science, on a basic level our children can neither count nor read.
The 'no child left behind' philosophy has become a misnomer and an uneven project," said Bloch.

He said he was often asked about the relevance of these subjects on a continent that still struggled with basic literacy.

"We only need to look at the recent awarding of the square kilometre array (SKA) project as an example of why these subjects are critical to the development of our learners. "Technology innovation is happening all the time and our learners need to understand maths and science if they are to view the stars through the SKA or solve diseases like Aids and malaria," he said.

A lot needs to be done to improve education, but it could be "as easy as seeing parents get more involved with homework by asking their chil- dren how their day at school was" or whether they have a tidy space and enough light to study, said Bloch.

"The NGOs and government do not always know what is going on. This country needs to look at realistic solutions, have a plan to implement, and identify where the country will be tomorrow."

Why bother?
Bowie echoed the sentiment that people do not appreciate why maths competency was required in the world outside of school. That the majority of people used a basic level of maths in the workplace reflected the need to re-examine what was being taught at primary schools, she said.

"Our educators need to teach maths and science in a deep and connected way that makes the learners understand it in a more contextual manner," she said.

Given that many maths and science educators did not want to teach the subject or did not have the subject themselves, the government and industry needed to look at how they could help teachers to awaken that passion.

"Maths Literacy is easily dismissed but one needs to look at the schools and what is needed to make the subject matter real to the learners in a practical way. The problem with only having one mathematics subject on a grade 12 level is that learners who want to pursue a more technical career are limited by only having Maths Literacy," she said.

The numbers game
Joshi said that three things needed to be considered when evaluating maths and science education in the country.

"First, the number of children who complete schooling from grade R to grade 12 needs to increase. The next step is to get those learners to start participating in higher education. Finally, more employment oppor- tunities must be created for those students who graduate."

Joshi said there was a shortage of about 2 800 teachers for maths and 2 500 for science across the 15 000 government funded schools. For its part, Neotel had partnered with NIIT for the deployment of approximately 200 maths labs.

"Learners need to be made employable for the future. Connecting a school to the internet is an easy thing to do. The challenge for the school is doing something with that connec- tivity. Content needs to be part of the process as a way of imparting educa- tion in a structured way. Educators need to become enthusiastic about learning about ICT and using it in their classrooms," he said.

Spotlight on Gauteng
From a provincial perspective, Gauteng has 2 300 public schools of which approximately 1 200 (830 primary schools, 360 high schools) have been identified as under-performing in maths, science, languages, and Grade 12 pass rates.

"Our interventions aim to cover all these schools and work from Grade R to Grade 12 from this year," said Creecy.

"If you want changes in the education system, it is great to have perfect projects in only a few schools. But what do you do with the schools in the townships, informal settlements and rural areas? They are the ones that need to be turned around. Our African children need better outcomes," she said.

The province's education interventions had several features in common, she said, starting with using in-service training for teachers more effectively.

In Gauteng, she said, a shortage of teachers is not the problem, but rather that many of the teachers do not have adequate curriculum knowledge. Learners who might not be fluent in the language of teaching will also struggle with maths and science also very structured.

There were also standardised assessments for teachers to apply to learners in the foundation phase. Creecy said that the services of coaches had been put in place to mediate formal training with educa- tors over weekends and during school holidays.

"Often, educators in these under-performing schools have a variety of responsibilities within their communities. We are reresourcing learning materials to ensure that these teachers get the right text books and tools in place to be able to do their jobs more effectively.

"But it is also about getting the basics right such as students having to get to school on time and actually going to school,"she said

Creecy felt that this called for better parental involvement and letting parents partner with educators to help solve the problems of individual pupils.

Looking at solutions
Bowie argued that getting teachers to understand both subjects in a deep way would be critical to help solve these issues.

"The leadership and support in schools are important to do this. If you have a good principal and good department heads for maths and science that can work with new teachers to help learners, then a significant battle has already been won," she said.

Joshi said that the two subjects became enablers for both the educator and the learner.

"The principal plays an important role to drive educators to upskill themselves. Technology is not some- thing many of them are comfortable with, but that needs to change. They have to be enabled to understand it and not be afraid of it."

Creecy said that one of the challenges was to keep people in the teaching profession at a senior level instead of them going into management roles in business.

"How do you keep good maths and science teachers in the classroom and pay them well when they have years of experience? I believe that the majority of educators need more support."

Bloch agreed:"Teachers need to be assisted and they need to start loving their students again. We need to compete with the world and start solving the issues of Aids and malaria and see the history of mankind through the SKA,"he said.

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