Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga is up against the South African Democratic Teachers Union and teachers’ resistance in her attempts to improve teaching skills. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

EDUCATION has a large and largely immovable problem: its teachers. Many are not fit for the job. They do not have enough knowledge of the subjects they teach, are unable to undertake high-level cognitive tasks and cannot impart a critical approach to written text.

Many do not spend the required minimum time on classroom written work and many arrive late at school and are frequently absent.

There was much excitement over the matric results of 2015 when 70% passed. But 300,000 children failed and another 300,000 dropped out before matric, rendering a pass rate of only 50%.

While pockets of excellence have developed in township and rural schools and some teachers are dedicated and excellent, improving teaching has been an uphill slog for education administrators. Most initiatives have not worked, despite millions of rand spent and many hours sacrificed by teachers attending workshops at weekends.

The way has been blocked by three big obstacles. First, the legacy of Bantu Education, which has left some teachers with gaps impossible to fill. After years of in-depth research, educationalist Nick Taylor says many teachers "are just too badly educated themselves".

"The gaps they have can’t possibly be bridged by the in-service training we provide," Taylor says.

Taylor, who until last year headed the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit, which monitors teaching and learning in qualitative detail, wrote in a 2012 report on the first three grades that "a vast number" of teachers lacked all three aspects needed: knowledge of the subject; knowledge of the curriculum; and knowledge of how to teach the subject. They are not only failing to follow the prescripts of the official curriculum, "but seem unaware of what these are", he says.

A 2014 report, still unpublished, focused on high schools and Taylor says the same trends remain in evidence. Most disturbing is that basic problems, such as teacher punctuality and absenteeism, have not been solved at many schools, he says.

The second obstacle to improvement is resistance to training from teachers who believe such initiatives threaten their job security and undermine their dignity.

Teachers have resisted all attempts at competency testing. Where testing has been conducted, the results have been humiliating.

The most recent research, conducted by Sarah Bansilal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, involves 253 matric maths teachers, who in 2014 wrote a shortened version of a matric maths paper. The average result was 57%, with a quarter of the sample achieving less than 50%. A third was unable to tackle complex procedures or problem-solving questions. The often-quoted 2007 SACMEQ tests conducted on SA teachers showed 79% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers had content knowledge levels below Grade 6 and 7 bands.

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LACK of proficiency in English, the main language of instruction from Grade 4 up, among teachers undermines the efficacy of teacher-training and teaching.

The third obstacle to progress is the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), which enjoys a political alliance with the ruling party and has distorted the lines of accountability between the employer and employees to the extent that normal labour relations hardly pertain.

So where to start unpicking this mess? For many, including a growing section of the African National Congress (ANC), the place to begin is Sadtu.

With 240,000 of SA’s 390,000 teachers, concentrated heavily in township and rural schools, Sadtu has the power to block any initiative it perceives as threatening.

Moreover, its political alliance with the ANC through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in the past 20 years has achieved benefits and salary increases that are way above the norm.

Among the initiatives by the government that Sadtu has prevented are:

• 2006: a plan to licence teachers to weed out the 20%-30% considered "untrainable";

• 2007: a proposal to reintroduce school inspectors;

• 2011: competency testing for entry into the profession and for promotion posts mooted in the National Development Plan;

• 2011: performance-related pay and incentives for teachers that are also recommended in the plan;

• 2013: testing of matric markers; and

• 2015: the designation of teachers (this became principals only) as an "essential service" to prevent them from striking.

After many years of objecting to standardised testing for children in the fear that this would be used to evaluate teachers, Sadtu finally relented in 2011 to the introduction of the annual national assessments. But last year, after disagreement with the Department of Basic Education on the frequency of the tests, Sadtu and other trade unions refused to administer them.

Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke says underskilled teachers should be identified and "empowered" through training, not testing. "Once you say to teachers that they must write the same test as their learners, you create resistance. A positive tool to identify their skills needs to be developed … why can’t we identify these particular teachers, given their historical challenges, and come up with a programme of empowerment?" he asked.

This implies a voluntary programme, as well as an implicit guarantee that a teacher whose skills are lacking cannot be removed when the weakness is exposed.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has arrived at a similar conclusion. Last year, the department piloted a tool for self-diagnostic assessment for maths and English — an anonymous test meant to direct teachers to areas of the curriculum they should work on. It is anticipated these tests will start this year, but they will not remove incompetent teachers.

"This removes the biggest barrier to testing, which is stigma. If teachers feel they are going to be judged, you will not get through to them," she says.

Motshekga found a similarly "non-evasive" way to introduce quality control into the selection of matric markers, by setting criteria that include that markers must have an 80% pass rate at their school to qualify. The department’s latest training initiative, One Plus Four, involves Grade 8 and 9 maths teachers attending training on Mondays and teaching that material on the remaining four days.

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MOTSHEKGA is just being pragmatic. Hitting Sadtu with force does not work as it hits back just as hard. A strike by 240,000 teachers means 800,000 children will be on the street.

"It is not because we are defeated that we came up with One Plus Four. In most countries, it is just a fact. Teachers don’t want to be trained on weekends, it is their private time and they are exhausted. In rich countries, they bring in relief teachers. We can’t do that, so we will do it like this," Motshekga says. Her approach is now to consult with unions where necessary, and obtain teacher buy-in as much as possible, but to move ahead when necessary.

A major source of Sadtu’s power lies in the fact that it has the whole management system sewn up. School principals and district education officials — the primary representatives of the employer — are in most cases Sadtu members.

As a result, the union exerts a vice-grip on appointments and promotions, far disproportionate to the role of observer accorded to it in law. With power has come corruption and the evidence — in a draft report by Professor John Volmink commissioned by Motshekga — that Sadtu is involved in selling posts for as much as R30,000 each. Sadtu also has enormous influence on promotions and appointments.

Establishing some normality in labour relations and restoring the power of the employer to manage is a priority for the future. The Volmink report recommends overhauling the appointment process at schools and limitations on union membership. This would involve amending the Schools Act and reducing the power of school governing bodies.

Motshekga also hopes she will make some progress with a suggestion that employer representatives should not be union members.

Maluleke points out that freedom of association is enshrined in the Bill of Rights and that right cannot be denied to school principals.

Reducing the power of school governing bodies will also be strongly resisted by all teachers’ unions, as well as parents, for good reasons and for bad.

A way around Sadtu’s dominion is yet to be found.