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‘In practice a reformist party considers unshakable the foundations of that which it intends to reform’ Leon Trotsky (1874–1940)

It was with foreboding that I read a press article in the North Eastern Tribune written by the Independent Private Schools Association of South Africa, based on research by Dr Jane Hofmeyr, the executive director of IPSASA. Hofmeyr asserts that clear evidence has been produced by a 2005 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report, which shows that, with an average learner-teacher ratio of 35:1, South Africa will have a shortfall of 32 000 teachers by 2008.

This is due to a number of reasons including an exodus of teachers leaving the profession for greener pastures due to stagnant salaries unrelated to the open market, and the high mortality rate among teachers caused by the scourge of HIV/AIDS, the closure of the 136 training colleges in the 1990s and teachers who are incompetent because they lack the knowhow of the latest methods of imparting Outcomes Based Education (OBE). Hofmeyr said, ‘Surely all players should now realize that the emperor has no clothes,’ criticizing the government against discontinuing colleges, which were the main suppliers of the majority of teachers in the past. She stresses that the country needs 15 000 teachers a year to achieve a conducive teacherlearner ratio. In an Internet search to confirm these figures, I located so much other distressing information that I abandoned my wish for statistics and recorded some other opinions.

For example, I found the following quoted in the Web page of Business Day, from Dr Reddy, who is the editor of the recently published Marking Matric: Colloquium Proceedings (HSRC Press) and research director of the Education and School Improvement unit in the education, science and skills development research programme of the Human Sciences Research Council: ‘The implementation of the new curriculum was poor and the support offered to teachers minimal. Teachers attended many professional development courses (provided by national and provincial education departments, universities and nongovernmental organizations)—an opportunity to engage about new approaches, to provide better pedagogical knowledge and inputs about improving classroom interactions.

However, the evaluation of the professional development courses was that they were poorly organized and poorly conducted. They have been characterized as providing general philosophy and frameworks but there were few examples of how to put this into practice.’ On reading these observations my forebodings expanded. In previous comments some two years ago I expressed my reservations on OBE and the impact on teacher morale and effectiveness. But even more critical were my comments, which I have repeated many times, that it is the quality and effectiveness of the teaching profession that determines the future of our nation. Teachers are the foundation-stones on which we must build the education system that determines the culture and character of the incoming generation of our society.

This applies across the full spectrum of the curriculum but more particularly in business and technology. It is fundamental from the lowest grades of primary education through all facets of secondary, tertiary and adult education. Are we not in a major crisis? Are we perhaps blinkered by the privileged private schools? Is this yet another instance where the rich are OK but the poor face a looming disaster? The schools are just the edge of the swamps. We need teachers for the technical colleges, mentors for the apprentices and learnerships, teachers at technikons, for universities, for business schools at basic and advanced levels, for our nurses and paramedics, for transport systems and construction and civil service and all aspects of adult education. We need an injection of teachers such as this country has never seen before.

We have wealth in abundance. An obvious first step is to offer salaries and incentives that anyone with real teaching skills cannot afford to ignore. It is probably too late to abandon OBE but let us bring in the teachers from those countries that are making it work. There are hundreds of tactics that can be employed to get good teachers into rural as well as urban areas. It must be a military-like campaign such as was used to negotiate the arms deals or the world soccer cup. Can anyone doubt that it is of the same importance? It will cost big money but what price to overcome a disaster? It will need leadership. Is there any indication that there may be such an urgency amongst our education hierarchy?

In my Internet searching, I came across one of the recent addresses of our Minister of Education, Ms Naledi Pandor, at the Aggrey Klaaste Maths, Science and Technology Educator of the Year Award, Midrand,
Thursday 10 March 2005. ‘The aim of this award is to improve the quality of maths and science and technology teaching and there is no more pressing aim in education today. To change people’s perceptions and students’ performance in mathematics we need to change the way it is taught. We need high quality mathematics teaching and high quality mathematics teachers in every classroom, for every child. And that is why the Western Cape has made maths compulsory up to grade 9 and why KZN has made Zulu compulsory, because the language of instruction is critical in the teaching of maths and we know that mother tongue learning is absolutely central to effective learning. And that is why there is more money for maths and science teachers in our 2005 budget and why the focus is now on quality rather than on quantity.

We can no longer afford to deny nearly half of our pupils the basis and opportunity for qualifying to work and better themselves in our contemporary scientific world. Mathematics plays a gatekeeper role in this regard. Pupils are only allowed to pass through this gate if their passport is endorsed with a higher grade maths pass. But it is not simply access to information and communication technologies that concerns us. Our political economy has evolved to a point where citizens need a quantitative understanding of numbers in order to participate in and contribute to the development of democratic culture.

Recognition of this evolution is evident in an increasing awareness for the needs of a greater public understanding of science in the broadest possible sense of that word. But what sort of maths should our pupils learn? At the moment a ministerial working committee is considering the curriculum statements for maths and mathematical literacy. You see, the mathematics that has played the gatekeeper role to further and higher education has not necessarily prepared individuals to be able to participate in and contribute to their society. Traditional mathematics programmes have not necessarily prepared individuals to make sense of their worlds.’ Is it possible in this time of crisis to teach maths and science in Zulu or any of the other indigenous languages? Must we wait for the evolution of dictionaries and textbooks in maths and science so that qualified teachers can be found among the cultures of all of rainbow languages? If such foundations are unshakeable then we may be left behind in the race for transformation. My foreboding deepens.  R.E. Robinson  June 2006