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PAUL ESTERHUIZEN | Poor school system worsens learning discrepancies

Image: 123RF/Pay Less Images

A recently released report aimed at understanding the key challenges facing SA’s education system says that profoundly unequal access to quality education lies at the heart of the country’s extreme and persistent levels of inequality.

Despite nearly three decades since the advent of democracy, an inequitable education system persists, perpetuating an inter-generational cycle of education and income inequality.

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s Education Research Report identifies problems with SA’s education system at every level: from early childhood education to basic education and through to tertiary education.

Limited access to quality early childhood education for around 80% of the children in the country means that the majority of children enter the schooling system with learning backlogs. These learning discrepancies are exacerbated by a poorly performing and dysfunctional public school system characterised by poorly resourced schools and teachers who often don’t have the requisite subject matter expertise.

Once at university, many of these student teachers often struggle with the course requirements. And on graduation there is no credible assessment of their readiness to teach.

The report points to studies of newly qualified teachers from the foundation and intermediate phase Bachelor of Education courses of five universities and found that their subject and pedagogical knowledge were concerningly poor.

Numerous studies in recent years have pointed to teachers’ lack of subject matter knowledge.

Alarmingly, 80% of grade 6 learners are taught maths by teachers whose maths knowledge is below grade 6 level and only 55% of teachers meet the intermediate benchmark of Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).

When nearly half of teachers don’t meet the benchmark requirements we should not be surprised that the majority of grade four learners can’t read for meaning. 

Not only do teachers not always have sufficient subject matter knowledge but newly qualified teachers are often allocated to teach subjects for which they have not been trained, says the report.

Then there are the issues with the curriculum. The department of basic education has itself conceded that the current CAPS curriculum may have too much content and require too many assessment tasks. And when curriculum changes are implemented, teachers are provided with little support.

Those learners who do manage to complete their schooling and secure a place at a university, often find that they are ill-prepared for the demands of tertiary education because of the learning deficits they carried through school, says the report.

Unisa currently trains more than half of the country’s teachers. However, its weak institutional functionality was flagged earlier this year after an independent assessment exposed maladministration, financial irregularities, human resources failures, a troubled ICT environment, poor student services, academic malpractices, questionable management and a culture of fear, bullying and intimidation.

Encouragingly, the report offers potential solutions to many of the challenges facing the education sector.

The next steps include the introduction of strategies to attract more academically able students into the teaching profession, significantly improve the quality of teacher education programmes and lay the groundwork for the introduction of credible professional certification for new teachers.

To maintain the current learner-teacher ratios – let alone improve them – it is estimated that SA will need to double the number of teachers it produces by 2030. This, says the report, offers the country a once in a generation window to flood the basic education system with better trained and prepared teachers. 

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust hits the nail on the head when it concludes that SA cannot afford to lose yet another generation of learners “by not giving them the key capabilities they need to succeed at higher levels of education and subsequently in the world of work.” SA’s economy and future growth potential depends on getting this right.

  • Esterhuizen is CEO of School-Days initiative that raises funds for education

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