We’ll have enough teachers for the next 10 years but there are concerns over graduation rates, write Ann Bernstein and Jane Hofmeyr.

Johannesburg – For nearly 20 years, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has been examining various aspects of the South African schooling system. It is not often that we find good news, as we have in our report launched this week: “Teachers in South Africa: Supply and Demand 2013-2025”.

A 2011 report by the centre indicated that South Africa was producing only a third of the country’s requirement of some 25 000 new teachers a year, and particularly too few in key subjects such as mathematics and science.

The seriousness of these findings led the centre to revisit teacher supply and demand to determine if the output had improved.

We now have some good news to report: our research indicates that South Africa will be able to produce sufficient teachers overall to meet the demand of our schools for the next 10 years.

The centre has constructed a pioneering model to explore and project teacher supply and demand using five different official datasets.

Although these were inaccurate, incomplete, and inconsistent, the CDE model is able to provide important pointers to teacher supply and demand in the next 10 years and the key dynamics that will influence it.

As a result of the efforts of the two national departments of education between 2009 and 2012, initial teacher education enrolments from 35 937 to 94 237, a 160% increase, and the number of new teacher graduates per year nearly doubled from 6 978 to 13 708. State funding for Funza Lushaka bursaries rose dramatically from R100m in 2007 to over R900m in 2014.

All the indicators suggest that South Africa will produce sufficient teachers to meet the growing demand over the next decade. Even though learner enrolments are projected to rise from 12.4 million in 2013 to 13.3 million in 2025, if the number of new teacher graduates continues to increase as planned, we will be able to maintain the current average ratio of 29 pupils to one teacher in our schools.

However, this good news has to be coupled with some serious concerns.

Student progress through initial teacher education programmes is poor and the outputs are very low. The graduation rates of the one-year postgraduate Certificate of Education and the four-year Bachelor of Education are less than half of what they should be.

However, the rate drops to as low as 10% of what it should be in the case of the Bachelor of Education at Unisa, which offers distance education programmes that most students study on a part-time basis. The fact that Unisa is the largest provider of new teacher graduates exacerbates this problem.

Based on projected pupil enrolments, the requirement for teachers for the various school phases is uneven.

By 2025, South Africa will need 3% fewer teachers in lower primary, 13% more in upper primary and 10% more in secondary school.

There will also be significant teacher shortages in key subjects: languages in all phases, mathematics in the intermediate and senior phases, and mathematical literacy in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase.

The most worrying finding, however, is that there will be a significant shortage of foundation phase teachers. While about 33% of children will be enrolled in the foundation phase (grades R to 3), only 18% of new graduates will be trained to teach in this phase.

This problem is compounded by a severe mismatch between the mother tongue of the foundation phase graduates and that of the pupils. Indigenous African languages are the mother tongue of 83% of pupils, but in 2009 only a surprising 13% of graduate teachers, with the majority of those Zulu speakers.

This will impede the effective development of numeracy and literacy skills by the mass of pupils. Policy makers need to take this shortage into account before they decide to implement the proposed introduction of African languages policy.

In the case of the current teaching force, the age profile is unusual. This will present a challenge by 2025: most teachers will then be aged 50 to 59 and beginning to retire, and the smallest number of teachers will be 40 to 49, the age group from which school principals and senior staff are drawn.

As a result teachers younger than 40, with less experience, may have to be promoted to fill leadership positions.

There is considerable “churning” in the teaching force as teachers move in and out of the system. New teacher graduates enter late – on average at age 28 – and many teachers leave before retirement age. Some return and some do not.

However, the key finding is that more qualified teachers leave than return, so despite new graduates being added each year, the system is like a leaky bucket with a net drain of qualified teachers.

This means that the proportion of unqualified teachers – currently 19% – is unlikely to improve over the next 10 years.

It is important to stress that a qualified teacher is not necessarily a good teacher.

Not all qualified teachers are competent professionals able to provide quality teaching and learning.

As the government and researchers have found, the quality of the overwhelming majority of initial teacher education programmes leaves a lot to be desired, with the result that most of the current teaching force has been inadequately educated and trained.

Improving the quality of initial teacher education, although not the focus of this research, remains a pressing imperative, otherwise the expansion of supply will only reproduce more poor quality teachers with inadequate subject and pedagogical knowledge and limited teaching experience, leaving them ill-prepared for the challenges of classroom teaching. CDE offers several recommendations for the country in the report.

For the government these include: ensuring that official databases contain accurate, comprehensive and consistent information; setting targets to align the production of graduates to school phases and subject requirements; funding initial teacher education programmes adequately, especially the teaching practice component; increasing the employment of newly qualified teachers; and incentivising competent teachers to remain.

Although private sector involvement in initial teacher education has been limited to date, there is a role for market-based solutions in niche areas where the need for teachers is greatest, and in piloting innovative, alternative models and approaches to initial teacher education.

In addition, we would point to the value of public-private partnerships and the importance of targeting social investment funding strategically to have maximum impact on quality, efficiency and teacher shortages. Ad hoc projects will not work.

The good news then is that the country is producing more teachers and starting to improve the quality of their training. But this is by no means a sufficient condition for improving learner achievement or preparing learners for meaningful employment.

Even if existing and new teachers possess all the necessary knowledge and skills, their professionalism and commitment to fulfilling their teaching responsibilities in the best interests of the pupils is of paramount importance. A recent report by Treasury put it well:

Above all, it is the commitment of teachers that will ensure the success of the education system: to arrive at school on time, every school day; to be prepared for each day’s lessons; and to be in their classes, teaching.

If the system can ensure this, better basic education and effective expenditure will be within reach.

Where this commitment is found wanting and teachers are not fulfilling their responsibilities, they must be held accountable.

  • Ann Bernstein and Jane Hofmeyr are with the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.