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Teacher Development: Context 

How does teacher development support developmental goals?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) superseded the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016, but both United Nations compacts envisioned similar educational outcomes globally: quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. In South Africa, this is broadly underscored by the Bill of Rights and the South African Schools Act.

While we do not place much emphasis on the MDGs any more, one of the gains in sub-Saharan Africa was increasing access to primary education from 52% to 80%. The Sustainable Development Goals, which are more comprehensive and require greater collaboration and engagement by all sectors and stakeholders in society, have defined a set out outcomes for education, encapsulated in SDG Goal 4. This includes the following:

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
  • By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States.

It is obvious that good teachers are crucial if we are to achieve the targets set by Goal 4, but challenges remain, including the shortage and uneven distribution of professionally trained teachers (particularly in disadvantaged areas). “As teachers are a fundamental condition for guaranteeing quality education, teachers and educators should be empowered, adequately recruited and remunerated, motivated, professionally qualified, and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems,” UNESCO writes.  

The UN has pointed out that, despite significant progress, 262 million children and youth aged 6-17 were still out of school in 2017 and more than half of children and adolescents were not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. The capacities of teachers and the quality of education have not kept pace, suggesting that far greater investment in teacher development may be needed to achieve the targets set by Goal 4. “Globally, there has been little progress in the percentage of primary school teachers who are trained: it has been stagnating at about 85% since 2015. The proportion is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa (64%),” the UN has pointed out.

Several studies on teacher development and teacher quality note the high turnover rate of South African teachers, as well as the poor results achieved under their watch. According to Professor Gabrielle Wills, an education economist at Stellenbosch University, educators struggle to produce the desirable results.

  • South Africa rates worst for science achievement among more than 60 countries.
  • Around 60% of grade 4 learners in the public schooling system are not able to read fluently and with understanding.
  • Around 61% o Grade 5 learners are unable to do basic mathematics.
  • Some 79% of Grade 6 or 7 maths teachers are unable to score 60% or higher on Grade 6 or 7 level questions.

Additionally, around 10% of the country’s teachers are absent from school each day, and only 13% of foundation phase new teacher graduates speak an African language at home while 83% of learners do so.

Will professionalising teaching make a difference?

It has been suggested that “a new breed of teachers” is needed to meet the challenges of educating our youth in the 21st century, but also that professionalising teaching will go some way towards alleviating some of the problems faced. The South African Council for Education (SACE) has produced a Professional Teaching Standards Draft for Consultation with Teachers & Subject and Phase Specialists. Aside from adhering to professional standards and a code of conduct, teachers also need to commit to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) beyond the world of work.

Key stakeholders involved in the professionalisation of teachers include the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the South African Council for Educators (SACE) and teacher unions.

The South African government spends more on education than on any other sector (20% of state expenditure and 7% of the nation’s GDP). The Department of Basic Education (DBE), which is responsible for primary and secondary state schooling, works hard to address the multiple, complex challenges within the education – including strengthening its support for teachers – but the fact remains that there are insufficient support structures in place. In addition, teachers have drawn attention to:

  • Administrative overload
  • Having to teach subjects for which they are not trained
  • Poor working conditions, physical infrastructure and overcrowded classes
  • Undue delays in filling vacant teaching posts
  • Being in the professional as a result of the economic imperative of following the availability of bursaries rather than a calling
  • A lack of being valued by society

The bottom line is that teaching is in crisis, teachers require greater support and development, and their knowledge and teaching practices are in urgent need of improvement.

Recommended Resources

  • Why is teacher development important?

    Professor Gabrielle Wills explains why teacher quality is so critical to improving our education system. “You can’t win a war unless you train your army, and our teachers are the key agents for change with respect to providing quality learning and education for children,” she says.

  • Teacher professional standards for South Africa

    The 2017 paper Teacher Professional Standards for South Africa: The road to better performance, development and accountability? by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) provides insights into the conditions under which TPS in South Africa might serve to raise school performance. It addressed three key deficiencies in the education system: many teachers are ill-prepared for teaching, are not accountable, and do not receive enough support and training to equip them as competent educators.

  • Teachers in SA: Supply and Demand 2013-2025

    The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) developed a model to predict teacher demand from 2013 to 2025. According to the model, demand for teachers will rise from around 426 000 in 2013 to 456 000 in 2023.

  • Why teachers are leaving the profession

    This 2017 article found that teachers were largely leaving the profession due to low pay, high stress, poor working conditions, changes in the curriculum, a lack of resources, disrespectful learners, low professional standards, and corruption and mismanagement – all of which lead to low morale. In addition, government employees are not entitled to receive a lump sum of money when they retire. Education is still the largest profession in the country, with more than 400 000 teachers, but more needs to be done to make teaching a safe, attractive and valued occupation in South Africa.

  • PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading – Teacher Satisfaction

    According to Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading, teachers who are satisfied with their profession and the working conditions at their school are more motivated to teach and prepare their instruction. They are also more likely to remain in the classroom, and less likely to be absent.

  • Why professional development matters

    This 2010 Learning Forward paper asserts that even experienced teachers confront multiple challenges every year, including changes in subject content, new instructional methods, advances in technology, changed laws and procedures, and student learning needs. Professional development allows educators to improve their skills, which in turn improves student learning.

  • The importance of professional development for educators

    The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences says student achievement can improve by as much as 21% as a result of teachers’ participation in well-designed professional development programmes. Professional development turns teachers into better, more apt educators by enabling them to create relevant, tailored course instructions for learners.

  • The Importance of Continued Professional Teacher Development (CPTD)

    According to the NPO BRIDGE, research shows that an informed and inspiring teacher is the most important school-related factor influencing learner performance. CPTD is an integral part of teacher education because only continued learning and training assures a high level of expertise and ensures teachers deep up to date with new research on how children learn, emerging technologies for the classroom, and new curriculum resources.

  • Transformative teacher education in a time of crisis

    This 2017 inaugural lecture given by Professor Di Wilmot at Rhodes University suggests that systemic underperformance is a major problem in our schooling system, and teachers need to be well-equipped, well-supported and accountable if they are to play a critical role in improving the quality of learning.


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