Rural teachers to get critical backup from assistants

The department of basic education is undertaking a major effort to improve literacy and numeracy in three of the country’s most rural provinces.

Over the next three years, it will employ about 700 assistant teachers, who will be placed at primary schools in select areas.

The treasury has allocated an initial R29.2-million to the rural education assistant project, which will be increased to R58.3-million in the next two years, the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, said in her budget speech last week.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has welcomed the move, saying the employment of assistants will take a huge load off teachers and will allow them to focus on teaching.

The general secretary of Sadtu, Mugwena Maluleke, said the union had long said rural pupils needed more help to be on the same level with their urban counterparts.

He added that most rural pupils did not live with their parents, because they were in the cities working. Also, parents who were at home were often not literate enough to help their children with things such as homework.

The acting director of rural education in the department, Phumzile Langa, said the project would be used as a pilot study to evaluate the effect of assistant teachers in the foundation (grades one to three) and intermediate (grades four to six) phases.

“The Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo are the most rural of our provinces in the country.

“For the past couple of years, these provinces have been in the bottom three when it comes to performance as measured by matric results. “The districts were also chosen using the same criteria,” Langa said.

Pilot projects will be run in the Alfred Nzo and OR Tambo coastal districts of the Eastern Cape, in the iLembe and Umzinyathi districts in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Sekhukhune and Mopani districts in Limpopo.

The project’s lead researcher will report annually on its progress and will determine the usefulness of the assistants and develop a strategy to recruit teachers for rural schools.

Langa said 188 schools would participate in the initiative.

“These [assistant teachers] will assist with a variety of curricular activities, particularly improving numeracy, literacy and reading skills, and co-curricular activities, particularly co-ordinating homework clubs, maths clubs, reading clubs, creative arts clubs and agricultural projects,” said Langa.

The teacher unions have repeatedly called for more teachers to be hired, particularly in these provinces.

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Basil Manuel, said the project might be a good idea but the organisation remained sceptical about it. He said the department, by bringing in assistant teachers, was recognising what the unions had been saying all along — that the classes are too large.

“I don’t want to knock the idea because there are issues in terms of literacy and numeracy. But is this the best way to improve it? To take somebody who is not a teacher, may have basic training and put them in a classroom with a teacher and expect results?” asked Manuel. “Would it not be better to have small class sizes to get better delivery and better learning and teaching?”

But Maluleke said the assistants would be able to help pupils with their homework and reading, which meant the teacher would not have to waste time on that the following day.

“But, if you ask me, is it enough? It’s not enough. Over and above that you need, in a rural set-up, to have specialist teachers who will assist teachers with models of teaching in a unique rural environment where learners don’t attend preschool and are not prepared for school.”

Motshekga said the project would run from this year until 2021.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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