According to the United Nations (UN), teachers, trainers and other education personnel are generally considered the single most influential variable in an education system for achieving learning outcomes. Patricia Martin, the director of Advocacy Aid, considers the most significant challenges facing educators today and examines how these can be addressed to maximise returns on educational investments.
Prior to Covid-19, more than a quarter of teachers in South Africa experienced high levels of stress and many wanted to leave the profession. Reasons for this included onerous administrative workloads, resource constraints, poverty and inequality, and pressure to ensure that learners pass, according to the DG Murray Trust (DGMT). Post-Covid challenges have made the situation worse.
Poor working conditions are fuelling a negative cycle. Exiting qualified and experienced teachers are not necessarily being replaced with ones of the highest quality; indeed, students who become teachers are not of the highest calibre.
This is creating a new generation of educators who require more support to ensure their health, wellbeing and professional development – to enable them to provide quality education to build South Africa’s human capital for sustainable, inclusive development.
Teachers are the key to sustainable development
Educators are essential for achieving transformation. Only by providing quality education to ensure that historically marginalised children become engaged citizens can patterns of social, economic, civic and political exclusion be ended.
Education systems globally face the challenge of developing 21st-century educators but, in South Africa, the task of equalising the dual education professions inherited from apartheid adds to the challenge.
A 25-year review, conducted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in 2018, noted significant progress in dismantling apartheid’s dual education system, but emphasised that much still needed to be done.
Thanks to a combination of pro-poor funding, capacity building and policies geared towards institutional strengthening, the number and distribution of qualified teachers has improved, as have teacher-learner ratios and access to schools. The supply of newly qualified teachers increased threefold between 2012 and 2016.
Unqualified or under-qualified educators declined to less than 1% of the workforce, according to DGMT, and 40% fewer educators resigned, with a nominal attrition rate of 1.9%. Investments contributed to tentatively improved
learner outcomes in internationally benchmarked assessments. After years of achieving the lowest scores, South Africa was the country with the highest levels of improvement in the most recent maths scores in the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study assessment.
Nevertheless, DGMT estimated that maintaining the teacher-learner ratio would require the recruitment of an additional 20 000–30 000 teachers. Moreover, the quality of education and outcomes remained poor and unequal for historically marginalised children.
Disruptions caused by Covid-19 aggravated existing challenges and inequalities, and deepened gaps and weaknesses in the educator workforce. It is estimated that educational achievement was set back to 2015 levels, with greater losses for historically marginalised children.
Teacher profile 2018:
- Had higher education levels than the average South African, but lower than in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
- 56% had completed a short cycle tertiary programme.
- 24% had not completed any tertiary education (OECD: 3%).
- 81% received subject content, pedagogical and classroom practice instructions.
Source: OECD TALIS, 2018
Learner profile 2015
- Most Grade 9s scored below the lowest international level of competency in maths.
- 78% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in either their home language or English.
- Historically marginalised children remained left behind. While 80% of learners at independent schools, and 60% at fee-paying public schools, performed above the lowest international benchmark in maths, only 19% in non-fee public schools did.
Source: TIMMS, 2015
The challenge now is to invest strategically to ensure an equitable post-Covid catch-up under the stewardship of a professional and effective 21st-century cadre of teachers that nurtures South Africa’s 21st-century citizens – the people who will lead the country forward.
Scale of the challenge
According to the OECD’s 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), a quarter of teachers in South Africa experience frequent stress (OECD: 18%). Thirty percent want to leave teaching within five years, and more than 1 000 were lost to Covid-19-related deaths. Further losses will follow with the retirement of the 32% of current teachers who are 50 or older.
In the next decade, the education sector must retain and ensure the professional development of experienced teachers; and it must recruit new, inexperienced teachers.
Causes of the challenge
- Bloated curriculum and onerous administrative burden
- Limited capacity to teach children with language and other barriers caused by poverty, hunger, malnutrition, development delays and disabilities – 39% of teachers and 53% of principals said that the lack of capacity for teaching children with special needs impacts on the quality of teaching, according to the OECD’s 2018 TALIS.
- The psychosocial needs of children facing adversities such as poverty, violence, hunger and discrimination – place onerous demands on educators to provide care and support: 71% of teachers work in schools where more than 30% of children are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
- Overcrowding and lack of critical teaching and learning infrastructure and support personnel – Many under-resourced schools’ classes are larger than the recommended maximum of 40 learners. Fewer than 30% of schools have libraries, computer facilities and laboratories.
- Behavioural problems and violence, especially in under-resourced, overcrowded schools.
- Poor educator content knowledge in critical subjects such as foundational literacy and mathematics, lack of computer proficiency, and limited pedagogical skills to develop 21st century competencies and capacities – 79% of South African Grade 6 maths teachers were found to have content knowledge levels below the level at which they were teaching, according to University of Oxford researcher Natasha Robinson.
- Inadequate pre-service training – and limited opportunities for students to develop practical teaching skills in schools that do offer quality teaching and learning, according to DGMT.
- Lack of parental involvement – Parents’ engagement in their children’s education results in better academic, social and emotional outcomes for children; as such, it is key to reducing the burden carried by educators, DGMT points out.
- Unprofessional conduct – Absenteeism, arriving late for school, and neglect of teaching time are common.
- Inadequate teaching time – OECD indicates that teachers spend only 66% of their class time teaching (OECD: 78%).
The problems of educator stress, underperformance and attrition are not caused by one or a few factors: they are
systemic. Resolving the challenge requires an equally systemic solution.
Systemic, transformational solutions
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s International Commission on the Futures of Education’s statement on Transforming education together stressed that “[t]oday, more than
ever, education must transform the world”. It notes:
Despite over half a century of national and international development and education efforts, the promises of a quality education remain unfulfilled. We will not ensure education as a human right across the life span by continuing to do more of the same.
This statement is equally relevant to educator development. In 2019, the DBE said 80% of the education budget is spent on teachers’ salaries. Additional investments, primarily in attracting new graduates and training, have yielded limited returns.
There is agreement that we cannot do more of the same and expect a different result. The solution must be transformational and systemic.
Amidst the host of challenges are opportunities that, with support, have the potential to yield long-term solutions. The TALIS found that 97% of teachers in South Africa cite the opportunity to influence children’s development or contribute to society as a major motivation.
Unlocking educator potential requires that development be understood and actioned within a revised 21st century school model. It requires the recognition and development of teachers as just one component of an extended education system of co-educators, including parents and others outside school structures.
It requires constructing a wider, inclusive, supportive and coherent educational environment that addresses challenges to quality teaching through coordinated responses by role-players that extend beyond classrooms and school walls.
Instead of loading responsibilities on teachers, we must strengthen an extended educational ecosystem that
includes and supports the development of a professional cadre of expert educators who excel at, and are measured on, their core function – facilitating teaching and learning of the essentials, namely reading, writing, mathematics and 21st-century competencies.
They must be supported by co-educators, support personnel, and adequate teaching and learning infrastructure and resources, which are coordinated through schools that are hubs of transformational educational ecosystems.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) recognises that educator development cannot happen in isolation of broader systems-strengthening. All SADC ministries of education, including South Africa’s, have endorsed, and are implementing, the SADC Policy Framework on Care and Support for Teaching and Learning
(CSTL), which provides a roadmap for establishing schools as 21st-century hubs that support quality teaching
The framework is built on 12 pillars, one of which is educator support. The framework recognises that educator support depends on having all pillars functioning together to address systemic challenges that drive educator stress and underperformance. It thus provides direction on the systems-strengthening measures necessary for developing and maintaining a cadre of 21st-century educators.
The way forward
- Looking forward, “teacher development needs to innovate and transition from course-based training to a continuum of collaboration and exchange among teachers, schools, and education systems”, according to Sustainable Development Goal 4, which focuses on inclusive, equitable and quality education.
- Support the DBE to operationalise the CSTL Policy Framework to establish all schools, especially under-resourced ones, as CSTL hubs of 21st-century educational ecosystems – that support the development of educators and co-educators to provide quality, inclusive, transformational education.
- Invest in strengthening the following CSTL pillars to support a healthy and effective cadre of 21st-century educators:
- – Leadership and coordination of an extended continuum of co-educators.
– Parental and community involvement in the educational ecosystem. Teacher training through 21st century pre- and in-service training; screening, identification, assessment
and support training; educator collaboration; and ongoing mentoring to improve their core competencies,
including in foundational literacy, mathematics, special needs education and information technology.
– Quality assurance and improvement framework made up of professional standards, ongoing assessments, and
quality improvement interventions for teachers.
– Remote and in-person platforms for educator collaboration, co-learning and participation in devising interventions for effective educator support and development. Across the OECD, teachers emphasise that collaborative approaches to professional development are the most impactful.
– Supportive educational infrastructure, and teaching and learning resources, including open-source technologies, laboratories, and administrative infrastructure and support.
- – Leadership and coordination of an extended continuum of co-educators.
Taking the lead from best practices
Anglo American’s South Africa Education Programme is a systemic response to create coherent educational ecosystems supportive of 21st-century teachers, teaching and learning. Its goal is to improve educational
outcomes through a systemic, collaborative integrated response. This includes:
- Building relationships, earning trust, and garnering support from the community, DBE, teachers’ unions and
Department of Social Development
- Understanding each school’s performance, strengths and areas requiring improvement
- Engaging school governing bodies, school management teams and educators to collectively develop
- Providing essential basic infrastructure and administrative equipment
- Providing training, workshops and classroom coaching to improve teachers’ content knowledge and
- Getting parents and guardians involved in supporting schools and holding them accountable
- Supporting learners directly to improve results at matric level.
Primary School Reading Improvement Programme (PSRIP)
The PSRIP is a systemic, holistic, collaborative response to educator development. Conducted by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), the programme recognises that improving the quality of teaching and learning in core subjects and pedagogies — like literacy — is key to transformation. it recognises that this cannot be achieved by educator training alone and requires strengthening of the entire system.
The programme supports educators with training and development of skills to address specific challenges faced by learners; with the provision of teaching resources; and with strengthened monitoring, reporting and collaboration. Subject advisers from 51 districts have been supported to develop the capacity of teachers to be better at teaching reading.
The results have been substantial:
- 48% improvement in CAPS comprehension by educators
- 78% improvement in instructional support
- Improved sharing of best practices
- Improvement in the reading abilities of 29 345 learners
- Do teachers in South Africa Make the Grade? DGMT, 2018
- 2018 TALIS Results: Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners and Valued Professionals.
- TALIS 2018 South Africa Country Report.
- A 25 Year Review of progress in the basic education sector. Department of Basic Education, 2020.
- How to restore – and maintain – the home as a site of learning. DGMT, 2021.