The South African education system continues to achieve poorer results, despite teachers being paid better than most workers in the formal sector, with research showing that lower entry requirements for teaching students may be one of the reasons for this.
A study by the research group on socio-economic policy (Resep) at Stellenbosch University (SU) says that the answer to poor education outcomes may lie in the low admission requirements to study education at tertiary level – and the fact that education students on average have worse matric results than achieved by their peers in other degree programmes.
This seems to be especially true for mathematics.
Recipe researcher Irene Pampallis found in the study that teaching students “perform poorly in mathematics, especially compared to those who enroll in other degree programs”.
Data shows that prospective teachers entering a BEd degree achieved an adjusted average of 41% for matric mathematics, compared to the 54% achieved by students from other degree studies, and the 36% achieved by students in diploma or certificate programs for achieved matric mathematics. These are now the people who must equip South Africa’s children with proper math skills. Data shows that South African learners achieve some of the worst mathematics scores in the world.
The study converted mathematical literacy scores to the math equivalent so that all matrics could be measured on the same scale.
For subjects other than mathematics, the trend is the same – although the difference in marks is smaller. Pampallis believes this could be because those who enroll for a teaching degree achieve better marks in subjects other than mathematics.
Unisa, the University of Zululand, the North-West University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the University of Pretoria (UP) together produce about half of all teaching students in South Africa.
“It is clear that although prospective teachers generally have similar academic results to other degree candidates, they are less likely to take mathematics (as opposed to mathematical literacy) and their mathematics results are much poorer,” says Pampallis.
She says it is particularly worrying that at Unisa, which trains far more teachers than any other university, only 10% of incoming BEd students (between 2014 and 2016) took mathematics as a subject and passed it with at least 50%.
Good mathematical skills are essential for teachers, but the sector is unlikely to attract stronger mathematicians to the teaching profession without improving the standard of matric results as a whole, says Pampallis.
“Mathematics is essential for all teachers in the foundation phase, as well as for teachers who teach mathematical, commercial or scientific subjects in other grades.”
Pampallis also says that all teachers are expected to have at least basic math skills in order to assess their learners.
Although BEd students are from the lower part of degree enrollments at universities, they are still among the top performing matric candidates in terms of university admission. Almost two-thirds of student teachers who took matric maths were in the top 25% of national matric achievers.
BEd students also have higher matric points than students doing diploma and certificate studies, as well as matrics who do not go on to swot.
Pampallis says the findings indicate a shallow pool of high-quality alternative candidates who can be attracted to education, unless students who previously followed other fields of study choose to switch to education.
“It will be difficult to improve the academic caliber of our prospective teachers without improving matric results in general, or attracting candidates into teaching who would not otherwise choose teaching as a profession.
“In the meantime, it is important that universities address the gaps in math skills and mathematical confidence as part of teacher training.”
‘Academically weaker’ candidates to education
The entry requirement for BEd degrees is on the “low end of the spectrum” when compared to other popular university degrees, especially for mathematics.
The study also shows that BEd is one of the few degrees that does not set a minimum requirement for mathematics or mathematical literacy at several of the universities, although this trend is gradually changing.
“This can push students who are academically weaker into education programs because they do not meet the admission requirements for more select programs,” says Pampallis.
Paul Esterhuizen, CEO of the School-Days initiative, says the ripple effect of lower admission requirements is that fewer teachers are qualified to teach tougher academic subjects, such as mathematics and science.
“A critical shortage of trained maths and science teachers has been cited as one of the contributing causes for the country’s poor maths and science standards,” he says.
“According to the Department of Basic Education, more than half of mathematics and science department heads in secondary schools are not qualified to provide appropriate support to teachers because none of the subjects were their main subjects.
“Based on the study conducted by the department in 2018, only 43.3% of mathematics and science department heads have the necessary qualifications. The situation is made worse by maths and science teachers who did not major in it at higher level.”
Researchers also warn that, at a basic level, a teacher cannot teach someone something that they themselves “don’t know”.
Compensate experienced teachers
Esterhuizen believes that if South Africa wants to improve its education outcomes, also in mathematics and science, it must compensate higher performing teachers with more than the industry average and offer better benefits as a way to retain great teachers.
He says tertiary institutions should also start setting stricter admission requirements and work proactively to attract candidates with better math and science grades to the teaching profession by, for example, offering scholarships.
“At the same time, higher performing teachers must be supported with opportunities for further career growth and development. The strategies are nothing new and are familiar to most high performance organizations.”
Esterhuizen says South Africa’s National Development Plan sets an ambitious target for education which states that 90% of all learners pass mathematics, science and languages with at least 50% by 2030.
“It is unlikely that this goal will become a reality unless the department of basic teachers starts thinking outside the box with bold and innovative plans.”
Leave a Reply