In response to the recent release of the matric results, many education commentators implied that stronger investment in the foundation phase of schooling is likely to lead to more sustained improvement in school education and therefore to better matric results.
Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga highlighted the quality of learning and teaching in the early grades as “the most important priority” of the department.
Equal Education, a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members working for quality and equality in education, also expresses the view that the “focus of education authorities, and the public glare, must shift from a be-all and end-all preoccupation with matric results to foundation phase improvements”.
Many of us at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have long said that “matric begins in grade one”.
This challenging phase of schooling requires dedicated, well-educated teachers and putting mechanisms and resources in place to support them.
To attain this, we need to ensure that foundation phase teaching is seen as an attractive career choice for talented, academically strong and committed young people. We then need to train them in teacher education programmes that are based on a proven, robust research base and grounded in internationally accepted standards of excellence, localised for the South African context.
This requires a systematic, targeted commitment from multiple role players in the education sector and in broader society.
And herein lies the problem — in this country, the status of the foundation phase teacher is very low. Many believe, often unwittingly, that foundation phase teachers are child-minders, implying that anyone can do it and that one does not need intellect or a cognitively demanding university-level education.
In recent research at UJ we asked some of our students why they wanted to become foundation phase teachers. We also asked them what they thought of foundation phase teachers when they were in high school and what their family and friends say to them about foundation phase teachers. Their comments were enlightening.
Most students tell us that family and friends were often surprised that they were contemplating foundation phase teaching as a career, particularly if they were perceived to be “bright students”.
Although teaching in general is not seen as an ideal career choice, foundation phase teaching seems to be very poorly regarded. Those who express interest in pursuing foundation phase teaching are often bombarded with negative messages.
For instance, students tell us that people think foundation phase teachers don’t go to university, they “just start as crèche teachers and then move on to becoming professional teachers”, and “the general public looks down on the foundation phase teachers. They think that it is a low-class profession. They don’t even believe you if you say you have to study for four years to become a foundation phase teacher.”
The dominant message that prospective foundation phase teachers get is that it is less serious and less valuable than high school teaching — it is often seen as the lowliest in the hierarchy of teachers.
Most disconcerting is that student teachers also tell us that they held similar views when they were at school.
“I thought that a specific person becomes a foundation phase teacher just because they did not have good enough marks to study something else and because the course is easy.”
“I thought a foundation phase teacher was a low-class teacher and they are not well-educated teachers. They teach young kids simple education and therefore they don’t have to study hard and get high-quality education.”
This is contrary to the way in which primary school teachers are viewed in high-performing education systems in other parts of the world. In Finland, it is a highly prized career choice, having equal status with law and medicine. As a field of study it has some of the most stringent application and selection criteria.
Professor Jari Lavonen, a distinguished visiting professor at UJ and head of teacher education at the University of Helsinki (UH), tells us that only 5% of the thousands of applicants are accepted. To be a foundation phase teacher in Finland requires a five-year master’s level qualification and many teachers go on to obtain doctoral degrees.
At UJ, we have been working consistently over the past few years to raise the status and quality of foundation phase teacher education. The teacher education programme offered on the Soweto campus comprises cognitively demanding coursework, with a strong focus on child development studies.
In addition, all student teachers are required to do language, literacy and maths courses for three years. They also learn how to become competent practitioner-researchers in their classrooms.
During their degree programme, they are placed in a variety of schools for practice teaching but a large proportion of their practical experience is completed in the UJ’s teaching school, Funda UJabule School, on the Soweto campus.
The proximity of the school allows an integration of coursework with practice periods at the school. This is a model of teacher education that has been used successfully in Finland since 1972.
Research findings from a collaborative UJ-UH project show that students are learning to integrate what they learn in university coursework with what they learn at the school, preparing them better for the world of the classroom. At the teaching school students also have continuous exposure to experienced teachers, and have strong role models of teaching excellence to emulate. Most of the teachers at the teaching school are pursuing postgraduate studies. This helps to shift students’ views of primary school teaching as a lowly career choice.
What needs to be done? First, a concerted effort is required to change perceptions about the status of foundation phase teachers. We need strong advocacy from various segments of society. We also need to highlight excellent teaching in the foundation phase in national forums with accompanying messages of the importance of this phase of schooling as the basis for future educational success.
We need robust foundation phase teacher education programmes in which student teachers learn to become both producers and consumers of educational knowledge, particularly on child development. And we require dedicated funding in the form of additional Funza Lushaka bursaries for this phase of schooling, to attract more young people into this field of study.
In considering the dilemmas we face in foundation phase teacher education, we draw encouragement from our visits to schools in Finland where teachers of the early grades talk positively about their career choice and further development
When asked whether they would ever leave school teaching, the answer we receive is consistent: “Why would I want to do anything else? It is the best job in the world.”
If, as a country, we change the way in which early grade teachers are viewed and offer better support for them in schools, South African foundation phase teachers would be saying the same.
Nadine Petersen is a professor of childhood education at the University of Johannesburg and Sarah Gravett is dean of education at the institution.