05 August 2010

SA teachers get an F

It's official: SA's schools are of the worst in the world. A radical overhaul is needed, says ex-teacher Susan Erasmus. Here's what needs to be done.

It's official: SA's schools are of the worst in the world. A radical overhaul is needed, says ex-teacher Susan Erasmus. Here's what needs to be done.

The quality of our maths and science teaching clocked in last out of 62 countries, according to a recent World Economic Forum report.. Ghana, Liberia and Zimbabwe have all ranked higher in the quality of their primary education than SA. Our literacy rates are of the lowest in Africa.

The quality of education affects every aspect of a child's life: health, earning potential, what type of parent and employee they end up being. In fact, what type of country we end up living in. And the classroom is the incubator for all of that.

The World Economic Forum report summarises the reason for the importance of basic education succinctly:

Basic education increases the efficiency of each individual worker. Moreover, workers who have received little formal education can carry out only simple manual tasks and find it much more difficult to adapt to more advanced production processes and techniques, and therefore contribute less to come up with or execute innovations. In other words, lack of basic education can become a constraint on business development, with firms finding it difficult to move up the value chain by producing more sophisticated or value-intensive products with existing human resources.

Back to the classroom. Teaching certainly is not a job for the fainthearted. Let's start with the reality of being a teacher, a dedicated one (not to speak of trying to survive on the salary). This simply has to be the hardest job on earth. I did it for 16 years. I could not have done it for another 16.

Check how you would fare having to pull the following off on a daily basis:

  • You're on your feet for about 7 hours a day
  • You have anything between 30 and 60 (sometimes more) kids to control, to educate, and to nurture at any given time
  • You're basically on stage all day every day
  • You're an educator, an administrator, a social worker, an adjudicator and a substitute parent
  • If the kids run riot, the teacher always gets the blame for it
  • You earn so little that it would be impossible to pay rent and pay off a secondhand car at the same time
  • You go home with heaps of marking and admin, and then you have to basically also write your own scripts for the next day's performance (about 7 hours' worth)

Obviously one also finds lazy teachers. You find lazy people in every single profession. Even yours. There are always those who coast along doing the bare minimum. They don't deserve the 10 weeks of leave teachers get every year. But the people who work really hard would lose their minds without it. (If you find it difficult to cope with your three kids for the holiday, multiply that number by 15 and see how you feel after three months).

Is it fair to blame teachers for the poor quality of our primary education? Not really. Many of them are the products of the same poor education system of which they have now become a part. Schools reflect the societies of which they are a part - for better or for worse.

But the dedication and determination of one good principal can turn a school around. I have seen this done. It should be made attractive for such people to enter the teaching profession.

The responsibility of looking after children is a responsibility the state has taken on. They temporarily second that responsibility to teachers. It's up to the state to treat teachers in such a way that they attract quality employees who have been properly educated themselves They should be seen and treated as the most valuable employees of the state, not the least.  After all, they are shaping the future of the country. Our future. No one else can make that claim to the same extent.

13 things that need to happen - and fast

Status profession. Teaching needs to become a status profession again. The only way to do that is to increase the rewards substantially, and to select only certain applicants to the teaching colleges. (Personality testing is essential – we're letting these people loose on our kids, for heaven's sake.) Professional pride needs to become a regular feature of the profession again. We should be opening teaching colleges, not closing them.

Management training. School principals need to be trained properly in management and staff management. They are running huge operations, and often they're expected to hit the ground running straight out of the classroom with no formal training at all.

Parental involvement. Education is not just about school. A child's education is a 24-hour-a-day issue. Parents need to be involved, they need to be encouraging, and they must be able to make a financial contribution, even if it is small. A parent does not need to be able to understand Matric maths to encourage a child to study. Sometimes it is enough to show an interest, to go to PTA meetings, and to make an effort to create the kind of environment in which a child can study. (This doesn't have to be at home - the church hall, the library, an empty classroom. It just means making the effort). A parent who is not involved in a child's education is not just letting the child down - he/she is letting the country down.

Admin nightmare. The admin load on teachers needs to be lessened. It's a waste of money to pay people with university degrees to do endless admin tasks that could be done by someone with a Grade 10-certificate. Registers, mark lists, multiple choice marking, school admin, checking up on absentees – all of this can be done by admin staff that would command lower salaries than qualified teachers. It will save money and free teachers up to do what they have been trained to do: teach.

Accountability for results. School principals should be held accountable for results. If all your Matrics have failed, something is very wrong with the way things are run at your school. The rot has obviously set in, and it has set in from the top. It always does. The education department doesn't owe anyone a living. If the job isn't getting done, it’s time to appoint someone who will do it. A school principal who is too intimidated by his/her teachers to take charge and lay down the law, should simply not be doing the job. A principal who is protecting a poor teacher is betraying every learner at the school.

Rewards. Good results should be rewarded according to a sliding scale. A 60% Matric pass rate in a previously disadvantaged area is an achievement; in a former Model C-school it would be a disaster. Individual effort must be recognised and rewarded financially. Teachers should be held accountable for poor results too, and not be allowed to teach at that level again. A teacher who gets a high failure rate year after year in an external exam has clearly not mastered the syllabus or managed to maintain discipline. And then of course there are the 'ghost' teachers who continue to draw a salary, but never actually pitch for work.

Class sizes. Class sizes must be limited. I don't think any teacher, no matter how good, can effectively teach a class that has more than 35 learners in it. After that it just becomes crowd control.

Qualified staff. There should not be unqualified staff. A hospital would not employ an unqualified doctor. Why should a school appoint an unqualified teacher? If there is a shortage, teacher training must become a priority of the state. Rural, qualified staff should be paid a scarce skills allowance. Maths and science teachers should be paid a scarce skills allowance, especially if they get good results. If a teacher is going to be teaching a Matric subject, they should write that exam themselves - and perform adequately - before being let loose on Matric learners. (I have been witness to a qualified science teacher who scored 42% in the external Matric exam. This just should not happen.)

Resources. Basic resources must be provided. One really doesn't need fancy gadgets. Believe me, I taught in township schools for years and years. An imaginative teacher can get extremely far with a blackboard, a few photocopies and ingenuity. A poor teacher can have all the resources in the world, but the class will still be a flop. (But to have warehouses of textbooks undelivered to schools by September of the school year should be a firing offence.)

Quality control. There should be spot inspections and peer assessment. I know most teachers will be horrified at this. But actually, your classroom is not your own. It belongs to the state. They're paying for it, and they're paying you. Inspections are not about the best lesson you can come up with once in two years – it's about what's going down in your class every day. If you don't want other teachers to see what that is, something is wrong.

Discipline.  It's the one thing that gets completely ignored when training teachers. And it's the one thing without which no teaching can happen. I am not in favour of corporal punishment, but real alternatives need to be discussed and implemented. If you're paying teachers poorly, you're not going to attract the kind of people who can control a class through the sheer power of their personality. And you do find completely impossible kids, who cannot be dealt with in an already overburdened run-of-the-mill teaching facility. It should not be so difficult to expel them. Nor should it be so difficult to show a useless teacher the door.

Syllabus issues. The syllabus needs an overhaul. Forget pass-one, pass all. The syllabus should be about making kids employable and preparing them for tertiary education. Too often it's about the lowest common denominator. Our education standards have been DROPPING in the last 16 years. It is something about which we as a country should be deeply ashamed. Countries in central Africa which you've never heard of are doing better than we are. If our education is not preparing kids for the world that awaits them, something is seriously wrong. We are failing the youth.

Financial audits. South Africa spends more money on education than many of the countries in Africa who were ranked above us. Far above. Clearly the money must be getting lost along the way and disappearing into the cracks of mismanagement and corruption. Strict financial accountability in education departments should be a priority. This is every South African's money, and it's being stolen from our children.

OK, I can hear people asking what all this is going to cost. And the answer is that it is going to cost us plenty. But not doing it is going to cost us way, way more.

(Portions of this column appeared on News24 in 2010 during the teachers' strike)

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, October 2012)


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