Well before the current pandemic we have been aware of the inequalities and poor resourcing of education is South Africa; but the pandemic has laid bare the issues.
Losing teachers, whether due to COVID-19 or for other reasons, means the loss of institutional knowledge. Well before the current pandemic we have been aware of the inequalities and poor resourcing of education is South Africa; but the pandemic has laid bare the issues. Moreover, a crisis that the education sector has long been ignoring is now even more obvious:
We do not have enough school-leavers entering the teaching profession.
A review of the higher education courses chosen by most matriculants reveals very few potential teachers, but plenty of potential lawyers and accountants. Even with attempts by the state and independent educational institutions to recruit more teachers, we still do not have enough – and that ‘enough’ is not going to compensate for this new crisis.
In 1994, South Africa required radical transformation, from updating the curricula across all grades, to the funding of disadvantaged schools, to the rationalisation of tertiary education – all to ensure that ‘the doors of learning and culture should be opened’. The casualty of this was the closing of teachers’ colleges – or, at the very least, their transfer into universities’ education faculties. Whatever the outcome, the reality is that between 1994 and 1998 the number of teacher training institutions dwindled from 150 to 50. The decision to close training colleges was taken during the tenure of Sibusiso Bhengu as education minster, implemented under Kader Asmal and supported by Naledi Pandor.
Need to address teacher training
That all levels of education in South Africa needed an overhaul to allow more access to schools and institutions of higher learning by those disadvantaged by apartheid legislation is not under question as the apartheid system was clearly dysfunctional.
However, some of the major the decisions taken since 1994 have not been beneficial to education or to sustained teacher training into the 21st century. More than a decade ago, universities were graduating around 6 000 to 10 000 teachers a year, and the profession was shedding 18 000 teachers a year, and South Africa was losing some 4 000 teachers a year to emigration. The situation is now even more dire, even without access to up-to-date data.
In 2008 President Zuma acknowledged the teacher shortage. This prompted the education ministry to investigate the re-opening of teacher training colleges. Since then, however, very little has happened, other than the continuation of bursary programmes to recruit teachers. That remains a woefully inadequate response to sustaining the teaching profession. The solution is not simply to reinvigorate teacher training by reopening colleges, but to open new ones and deepen the quality of those teachers already graduating.
Corporate-state partnerships crucial
A key to sustaining teacher recruitment is the potential to create corporate-state training initiatives, where industry and private enterprises fund bursaries for teachers beyond those that already exist within the state. Consider a situation where non-service-linked industry-specific bursaries would not only provide further opportunities, but allow for the development of teacher training for all subjects – and not just the current focus on mathematics and physical science. We need teachers for the humanities and the arts, too!
Schools also provide perfect in-service training for teachers. In many schools, there are existing programmes to recruit ‘interns’, which brings youngsters into the profession. The danger is that these intern programmes are not valid and inauthentic – recruiting youngsters to coach sport and then placing them in the classroom to fill a teacher’s place is not contributing to sustaining teacher recruitment, but can be a tick-box. Alumni are easily recruited here and, of course, it is a bonus if it is an alumnus of colour. But teacher training in schools cannot be a tick-box. The onus is then on all schools to develop sustainable recruitment policies that develop youngsters for whom teaching is a calling.
Perception of teaching as a noble career
The biggest challenge is actually an old one, and maybe it’s the basis for the future. It is to change perceptions, so that teaching is once again viewed as a worthy and noble career. More lucrative career paths will always attract graduates away from teaching, and inevitably means that fewer people are likely to enter the profession. This issue is further complicated by the poor condition of many state schools, as well as the corruption within the education ministry that has been laid bare over recent years.
As a 2019 BizNews article so articulately stated: “Teachers are regarded as the essential drivers of a good quality education system. If South Africa can’t successfully recruit, retain, and train enough suitably qualified teachers it won’t be able to provide quality education to the citizens to meet the country’s social and economic needs.”
While the creation of more opportunities for teacher training may not be a panacea to solving the education crisis, it will certainly improve the quality of teaching in South Africa: and we have to start somewhere.