Letters to the editor: January 13 to 19 2017

Quality education: Finnish teachers have more time to spend with individual pupils. (Olivier Morin/AFP)

Quality education: Finnish teachers have more time to spend with individual pupils. (Olivier Morin/AFP)

Teacher tests will fail

  The Mail & Guardian editorial titled Teachers should have to undergo competency tests was quite right – mandatory competency testing of school principals is an important step. It was also correct to highlight the crisis of falling standards and failing students. And yet I feel it missed a few key points.

First, teachers are resistant to testing because it harks back to the days of apartheid when school inspectors used these very techniques to punish those who questioned the status quo.

The eminent Professor Crain Soudien wrote that under apartheid “inspectors … played a central role in subduing teachers and holding them to account” to an oppressive state.
Ignoring this toxic legacy and the dense, negative connotations to do with teacher testing means that any such initiative is going to face stiff resistance, and understandably so.

Second, I am personally against such testing of teachers, in general, because it seems destined to over-shadow the actual, central problem with South African education: it is impossible to teach effectively when you have 40 pupils in your class.

Think about the logistics. Teachers need to offer personal attention to pupils, particularly those who are struggling with the work.

But if a teacher spends 60 seconds on each student (which would be miraculous in itself), they are left with 20 minutes to cover an hour’s worth of teaching material.

According to research, it is barely possible to teach effectively with 30 pupils in a class, which would mean a pupil/teacher ratio of about 25:1.

The truth is that there isn’t a well-performing education system on Earth that has a pupil/teacher ratio higher than about 20:1 (which means about 25 pupils in a class).

The best school systems go even lower than that. Sweden and Finland are both famous for their high-quality primary education and they typically have about 15 to 20 pupils in a class.

Of course, having smaller classes does not automatically solve all of these problems. The United States has a low pupil/teacher ratio and their primary education is, shall we say, not ideal.

But that doesn’t change the fact that solving education’s problems is impossible without smaller classes.

As an educational psychologist, I can tell you that the research on this is utterly unambiguous. A low pupil/teacher ratio is not sufficient but it most definitely is necessary.

Competency testing might seem like a good idea in principle, but it is almost laughable to expect it to improve our country’s education system when compared with the realities of teaching in our country’s classrooms. – Andrew Verrijdt


We clap hands for the wrong reasons

There is no true democracy or nation-building when our national matric results remind us of our past. Nothing rainbow about this disturbing reality.

We are told the class of 2016 is the largest since 1994. We applaud the efforts made to ensure that our children are in class learning at the correct time.

We congratulate access to a classroom. It was not always like this. We also note that over the past 22 years our children have had to receive different education methods as we continued to try to improve on what we fed them.

But our education system has not run short of challenges, ranging from teacher unions and feeding schemes to scholar transport.

The announcements of the 2016 matric results shows that not enough has changed and we are expected to clap hands for the wrong things. The wrong things give us the impression we are doing well, yet the reality is that we are not.

Why are we silent on the very slow pace of ensuring that the African black child truly competes with the white privileged child?

We are expected to clap hands and say the African child is getting an education, yet the reality is that the black majority of those with national certificates will never see the door of a university.

Others will make it only to study communications and human resources, whereas a majority of their white counterparts will be in the engineering and science faculties.

For many, entering a university, a college or university of technology remains a dream they will never realise. They will roam our streets, frustrated, reminded daily that we are an unequal society.

The black child remains a victim and we have not done enough to change this. We have filled our classrooms with our children, reduced the pass marks, given them certificates – but are they now able to enter the economy?

We must accept that, as we continue to advocate for free quality education until first degrees, we have two education systems that are not integrated.

We produce matric students whose education has never been linked to the expectations of our universities. No wonder we have so many unemployed graduates. No wonder our children complete their studies and fail to even become job creators.

In all these things, we need to take a serious, conscious decision that all is not well and things must change. – Rhulani Thembi Siweya

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