Most of our new teachers can’t

Stumped: Recent studies found that teaching graduates lack proficiency in English and have poor reading and writing skills. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Stumped: Recent studies found that teaching graduates lack proficiency in English and have poor reading and writing skills. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

South Africa is turning the corner regarding the number of matrics enrolling for teaching at university and finally graduating –  but the same can’t be said about quality.

The department of higher education and training attributes the enrolment and graduates turn-around to government interventions since 2007. This is the year in which it introduced Funza Lushaka, a bursary scheme designed to attract matrics into teaching. Between 2008 and 2010, the department also allocated R570-million to universities to improve their teacher education infrastructure and thus expand their capacity to take in more students.

Diane Parker, the department’s acting deputy director general responsible for university education, said: “A teacher shortage no longer exists as a result of the collaborative efforts that government and other stakeholders have put into expanding teacher education capacity in the country. The size of teacher education in the country is now appropriate to meet its needs.”

She said the department had recently concluded a national teacher supply and demand study. “The results show that, by 2020, utilising capacity that is currently in place, the number of new teacher graduates annually will exceed 23?000. This number of new graduates will match, and even slightly exceed, the number of new teachers needed in the system annually.”

The number of students studying teaching shot up from 35?275 in 2008 to 104?000 in 2013. New teacher graduates increased from 5?939 to 16?758 over the same period.

Funding increased
Each year Funza Lushaka funds a quarter of the students studying to teach. The funding allocation to the scheme increased from R109-million in 2007 to more than R940-million in 2014. Of the 14?500 bursaries awarded in 2013, more than 3?000 final-year students graduated.

“Extensive effort and investment has been made into expanding teacher education over the last few years, and this has resulted in a massive expansion of teacher education capacity in the country,” said Parker.

But copious research, by the government and academics, indicates worrying numbers of new teachers who are poorly prepared to teach.

A quantitative study, released last month and carried out by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), an independent policy research and advocacy organisation, concluded that the universities do not produce quality teachers.

“Researchers and government agree that the subject content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge of most South African teachers is poor and that this is a major cause of inadequate learner achievement,” said the CDE report. “That teachers lack essential knowledge and skills points to inadequate teacher training, which is provided through … programmes at higher education institutions in South Africa.”

This conclusion was also reached in a recent study by the Initial Teacher Education Research Project, an initiative of JET Education Services in collaboration with the Education Deans’ Forum and the departments of basic education and higher education and training.

“The cause of poor performance, by and large, lies not with teachers but with the teacher education system that produced them,” said the study, led by Nick Taylor. 

Passing without performing
It examined aspects of education curricula at five universities, but does not name them. It found that “at all except one institution … most supervisors are not subject specialists, and in at least two institutions it is possible for students to pass teaching practice despite performing poorly in a classroom, or even without being assessed on their classroom expertise”.

Another problem was that teacher education courses have low entrance requirements in comparison with most other disciplines. “Students are accepted without any reference to what motivates them to become teachers. In some institutions, the focus appears to be on quantity (more teachers) rather than quality (better teachers),” said the study.

There was no “concerted or structured attempt to transform [the students enrolled] into good quality reflective practitioners”. They tend to lack proficiency in English and have poor reading and writing skills.

Parker said the government would now turn to addressing issues of quality in teacher education, following some success in averting a shortage of teachers.  “Over the next five years, the department and its partners will increasingly focus on the shape and substance of teacher education to ensure that well-qualified, able teachers are available to teach in all parts of the education system.

“The government … will continue to [expand teacher education] in the interests of ensuring the production of sufficient teachers of good quality and with the right kinds of specialisations (substance) to meet the needs of all education subsectors,” she said.

But the government’s plans do not entail reopening, in significant numbers, the teacher training colleges it closed in the 1990s. “The need to massively open new sites for teacher education to meet a teacher shortage no longer exists,” said Parker.

Teacher colleges
This will disappoint unions that have demanded colleges be reopened to improve the quality of teachers. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), the biggest teacher union with about 250?000 members and aligned to the ANC, has been at the forefront of this call.

Last week Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said the problem was universities “do not focus on the real issue, which is pedagogy, [but] more on the knowledge or the theory”.

Sadtu wanted teacher training colleges to return as satellite campuses of universities but maintain a college training culture. “The science of teaching is such that on-the-job training is very important,” said Maluleke. There was a need, he said, to “see implementation through”.

Bongani Nkosi

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