How to shift from class to classroom consciousness
As with the land issue, the pot will boil over in education because we did not act when we had the political space to do so
With a new government (some say, not-so-new) in place, it is time to deal with the single most important factor explaining the continued inequalities between our schools: the teacher.
In one set of schools (about 20%) the teachers are highly qualified and better skilled in terms of both their content knowledge (knowledge of the subject) and their knowledge of teaching (how to effectively convey that knowledge to children). In many other South African schools, the research shows, teachers know less about the subject than the pupils in the more privileged part of the school system.
In other words, we are struggling not only with inequalities of infrastructure – one set of schools has state-of-the-art digital facilities for learning and in more than 4,000 schools there are still open holes in which children relieve themselves and sometimes drown in the human faeces below them – we are also dealing with differences in teacher knowledge.
This is reflected in the vastly different learning outcomes depending on whether you went to school at Bishops or in Bizana.This government has a clear duty: to redistribute the teaching resources of our country as an urgent matter. There are several policy options available to the state.
Option one is to place student teachers who graduate from our best universities in the worst schools in the country. This is not unusual—the placement of professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors) in the areas of greatest need. The newly minted graduates from privileged backgrounds won’t like it – they never do initially – but they will come to appreciate the difference they make in the lives of children.
A matter of excellence
Option two is to set aside a massive budget allocation for five years that places recently retired teachers with track records of excellence in subject teaching (and in principal leadership) in classrooms of teachers where the literacy and numeracy scores of foundation-phase pupils are weakest.These expert teachers will work as mentors (coaches) alongside struggling teachers until the resident teacher has the confidence and the competence to teach like an expert.
Option three is to require of each privileged school to pay for and release at least two teachers every year to serve as teacher mentors in the same grades alongside teachers who have battled for years to move the needle with respect to pupil performance in their classrooms. This is the kind of soft redistribution the middle-class schools can afford and that the government can demand.I do not know of a more direct and achievable policy instrument that would take South African education out of this cycle of despair.
Year after year we assess the children, discover how little they know, feign shock and surprise in the media, and then do exactly the same things as before in the vain hope that the next round of assessments (the ANAs, the international tests of achievement, etc) will produce different results.
A radical approach
Let me put this bluntly: You cannot assess a black child white. We need to do something radically different and the best target is where 90% of the provincial budgets actually go – that precious resource called the teacher.
Make no mistake, the majority union will hate this because for them it is simply about employing teachers (whether or not they can teach), not about deploying the most competent teachers to areas of greatest need where the poorest children can benefit most.They will no doubt play the race card (most teachers of privilege are white) and they will play the victim card (the government is forcing this new policy upon us).
The role of the government as employer is to make redistribution happen. It must for a change be guided by the interests of the poorest pupils not by the politics of the powerful unions.
Some middle-class schools will object because they too are so absorbed in their self-interest and the protection of privilege that they do not realise that these soft options (like Option three) in the long run demonstrate their own commitment to equity in ways that shield their institutions from the coming rage.
What am I talking about?
The resurfacing of the land issue is, at root, a frustration with government and with white privilege that we have not been able to resolve this open wound in our long-suffering society.
Make no mistake, sooner or later the pot will boil over in education as well simply because we did not act when we had the political space to do so. Such a not-so-radical act of teacher redistribution is not only good for pupils now; it is good for all of us in the future.
• This article draws on research in a forthcoming book by Nic Spaull and Jonathan Jansen (editors), The Enigma of Inequality in South African Education (Springer Press)