Universities are forcing first-year students who want to become teachers to study African languages, in a bid to help more children in grades one, two and three to learn in their mother tongue.
For the first time, students who enrol next year for the Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree in the foundation phase at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will be taught the bulk of their courses in isiZulu. This would, for example, include being taught maths in isiZulu.
The initiative forms part of a move by education faculties at universities to “re-conceptualise” their teacher qualifications so that they are aligned with the National Teacher Education Framework (NTEF) as well as the policy on Minimum Requirements for Teacher Education Qualifications (MRTEQ), gazetted last year.
The MRTEQ is aimed at ensuring that institutions produce teachers of high quality by providing the basis for the construction of core curricula for beginner teachers.
Studying African languages is also mandatory at several other universities, including the University of Pretoria and the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
From the beginning of this year, first-year foundation phase students at the University of Pretoria who studied isiZulu, Ndebele, Sepedi or Setswana in matric either as a home language or first additional language level had to study one of the four languages.
English or Afrikaans-speaking students have to study either isiZulu, Sepedi or Setswana at a beginners’ level up to their second year.
At UJ, all foundation phase students have to learn either Sesotho or isiZulu until the end of their third year of study.
Labby Ramrathan, an associate professor in the school of education at UKZN, said there was a huge shortage of African language teachers in grades 1 to 3 despite mother tongue education being crucial at this stage.
“We will offer all modules in the teaching specialisations in isiZulu such as numeracy, literacy and life skills. Educational studies will be done through the medium of English.”
He said it was hoped that the new qualification would be accredited by the Council on Higher Education by September so that it could be implemented next year.
“We have the staff trained. The necessary materials for the teaching specialisations because of the re-conceptualised programme will be revised to fit into the new programme design. After September, we will start marketing the new programme.”
Said Ramrathan: “We are responding to the needs of the country and the development agenda for teacher education. Teaching through the medium of isiZulu in the foundation phase would be a first in the country.”
Commenting on the move by education faculties to make the study of African languages mandatory, Professor Max Braun, deputy dean in the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, said: “I believe that it is absolutely essential for South Africa’s development of social cohesion. They [students] need to have at least some African language competence at the very minimum to teach.”
Students pursuing the teaching degree in the intermediate phase (grades four to six) and the senior and further education and training phase (grades seven to 12) at the University of Pretoria have to attend a semester course in an African language from this year so that they have at least “conversational” competence in that language.
Braun said his faculty had also introduced a new module this year that outlined the requirements needed by students who go out to schools for teaching practice.
The module includes matters such as school expectations, ethics, professional appearance, assessment frameworks, record keeping, discipline, role and organising of extra-curricular activities and dealing with emergencies.
He said the module was developed in response to feedback from school principals.
Students could now also study one of the three new “support specialisations” which included teaching physical education at schools.
“There’s a strong interest in the school system for physical education. It was lost with the integration of the different education departments into one in the mid 90s,” said Braun.
Professor Sarah Gravett, dean of education at the University of Johannesburg, said they undertook research on the top teacher education programmes in the world before redesigning their curriculum.
She said they had a fixed curriculum and all students specialising in the foundation phase studied maths, English and African languages over three years.
“This framework [the NTEF] provides good guidelines in terms of the type of learning required to be a good teacher. It also provides a very good guideline in terms of the competency requirements for beginning teachers and gives universities the opportunity to put their own stamp on the programme.”
But she disagreed with the view that the NTEF should have been more prescriptive, adding: “At the moment there is a sense that teacher education is not of equal quality at all universities. You have some doing quite well and others producing teachers that are not well prepared for the teaching profession.”
Gravett, who is also chairperson of the education deans forum, said universities were grappling with the problem of trying to address problems regarding student teaching at schools.
“It is not funded by the department of higher education so it’s very difficult to ensure there is sufficient mentoring of students while they are at schools. This is a huge problem for all universities.”
Said Gravett: “Often, students from impoverished backgrounds struggle because they must go to schools which are not necessarily close to the university. They need accommodation and food.”
She said staff members from universities needed to travel to see those students and needed sufficient time to spend at schools.
“Many faculties of education are under-resourced in terms of both human resources and finances so I do think the school practicum [student teaching] is suffering in many cases.”
She said that another problem was teachers at many schools did not assist to mentor or develop student teachers.
“I know teachers are often over-worked. However, it is really concerning in some schools where we send our students to find that teachers basically disappear from the classroom and leave our students on their own.”