Basic Education challenges: Human Sciences Research Council briefing on the literacy and numeracy research programme

Basic Education

06 March 2012
Chairperson: Ms H Malgas (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) delivered short presentations on various aspects of research that had been done into improving the quality of education in South Africa, between 2006 an 2011. A consortium of research institutions had contributed to the studies and presented their findings.

The Centre for Education Rights and Transformation Education Policy Unit (CERT), at University of Fort Hare, gave a presentation on the Community Literacy and Numeracy Group Project. This explored the effects of community mobilisation and participation on education in five communities in South Africa, across urban and poor rural schools, using systematic evaluations and tests, multiple-site case studies, and involvement of community activists, youth, adults and researchers. The study concluded that community participation was of huge importance, and should be fully recognised. Closer working relations between schools and community groups would contribute to literacy education, and greater support from government department was needed. This project had some positive spin-offs in building relationships and setting up libraries.

The Centre for Education Policy Development presented a study into teaching literacy and numeracy in Multigrade classes in rural and farm schools in South Africa. About 27% of schools had multigrade classrooms, affecting about 4% of learners. Although the multigrade system was widespread it was not formally recognised, so no special resources were allocated to it, and teachers were neither specially trained for this challenge, nor were supported when they had to teach in these classes. Most of the schools with multigrade classes were poor schools, who were marginalised. The study recommended that a Rural Education Directorate should be set up at the Department of Basic Education (DBE), policies should be developed, and trends should be monitored to institute effective teacher training. Prospective teachers should be trained for all different contexts and types of schools where they may be placed, and they should undergo teaching practices in such schools. District officials had to be made aware of best practices, and language teaching must be strengthened.  

The HSRC outlined the challenges into using assessments to enhance teaching and learning at systemic and classroom levels, noting that assessments had been done of the achievement levels of 9 000 learners across 300 schools. The case studies used a variety of methods, whilst other studies were done into teacher classroom assessments, in eight schools across three provinces, using questionnaires, interviews, lesson observations and document reviews. The study found the achievement levels of a number of the Grade 9 learners to be low, particularly in mathematics, and also found that different provinces conceptualised curriculum and assessments in very different ways; where they were regarded as separate processes there were greater challenges to teachers. Teachers generally had limited understanding of how to use assessments to enhance teaching and learning. The research identified the need to develop an understanding of conditions that would enhance learners’ likelihood of succeeding, and emphasised the need to encourage a “hunger for learning”. Technology could be used to help poor children access learning materials and communicate with their mentors. Integration of assessment and curriculum would require focused attention.

JET Educational Services presented their study into National School Effectiveness, which tracked over 8 000 randomly-selected pupils in 268 schools, from Grades 3 to 6, focusing on home factors, school management, and teacher practices. It concluded that not enough emphasis was placed on writing as a skill, and said that teachers needed to be far more professionalised, and teachers’ levels of competency needed to be raised and they should be properly equipped to do their jobs.

The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) presented the project for creating literate School Communities, and the Dual-Medium / Biliteracy project findings. It assumed that an educational system that sought to deliver meaningful access had to be based on the mother-tongue of the learners, but recognised that substantial teacher re-training would be required, as well as a broader range of classroom practices. One of the languages would be used as a complementary medium, once the children had acquired “second language instructional competence”. Teacher performance development was also described, noting that many teachers needed more training “on the job”, and in particular had to learn how to teach in the absence of text books. Journal writing was used as a useful tool.

Members asked how participation of teachers, by visiting the homes of their pupils, could be encouraged, asked why so many teachers had been unable to use assessment tools, and questioned whether this implied that teacher training colleges should be reinstituted, and what had been the experiences of other countries in Africa. Members were interested in the kind of support to be offered to multigrade classrooms, asked about the role of principals, and suggested that there should be a greater focus on Early Childhood Development. Members asked on what basis provinces and schools were selected for research, thought that more district officers were needed, and asked about the relationship between this research and Departmental research, and whether findings were conveyed to the DBE. Members interrogated the differences between “qualified” and “competent”, asked how the researchers suggested that mother tongue teaching be promoted, and wondered if it was necessary to have a Directorate for Rural schools, but urged also that special schools should be taken into consideration

Meeting report

Basic Education challenges: Results of research projects
Community Literacy and Numeracy Group Project
Mr Ivor Baatjies, Researcher, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation Education Policy Unit (CERT), University of Fort Hare, gave a presentation on the Community Literacy and Numeracy Group (CLING Project). This project had explored the effects of community mobilisation and participation on education in five communities in South Africa, based in Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng, with a view to establishing whether increased community involvement in schools did result in improved literacy and numeracy in primary-school children. Both urban and rural poor schools were studied, by combination of systematic evaluations and international tests. It was believed that development would not take place without more comprehensive participation.

Mr Baatjies noted that the research methodology included multiple site case studies, combined with participatory research methods involving community activists, youth, adults and researchers. There was significant progress in mobilising communities in support of school reform and community education, and this project laid the foundation to accelerate community participation. The project managed to establish relationships with the government departments and institutions. Significant achievements also included the setting up of a library, mostly used in the afternoons, Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes that supported children with reading and writing, and establishment of reading clubs as part of the Nalibali Reading Campaign.

The study concluded that community participation in education remained of utmost importance and needed to be recognised. Closer working groups between schools and community groups would contribute to literacy education. It also suggested that greater support from various government Departments, including the Departments of Education, Social Development and from local government would enhance the work. It was also recommended that policies that valued community participation in education should be developed. It was recognised that people in poor communities were capable of finding solutions to community problems.

Teaching literacy and numeracy in Multigrade classes: rural and farm schools
Ms Tsakani Chaka, Researcher, Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD), presented a study into teaching literacy and numeracy in Multigrade classes in rural and farm schools in South Africa. She noted that in 2005, the Ministry of Education released a report on rural education. Multigrade teaching was specifically noted as a challenge. This research followed up on the position at the moment, and analysed data as well as carrying out six case studies, in the North West province, using interviews with principals, interviews with teachers, lesson observation, documentary analysis (work schedules, lesson plans, time-tables, learners’ work), interviews with , the interview with provincial and district officials, as well as with teacher trainers. About 27% of schools had multigrade classes, and this involved about 4% of the learners. The multigrade system, although in fairly widespread use, was not actually formally recognised. Most of the schools that had these classes were poorly resourced. There was no curriculum adaptation, and the planning requirements were the same as those of the monograde classes. Teachers’ exposure to suitable teaching strategies was limited, there was no specific teacher training on multigrade teaching, and no specific support was offered to these teachers. The teachers faced high workloads owing to planning and assessment requirements. The learning materials were not always available in the mother tongue, and were not suitable for self study. In general, there was a negative attitude towards amongst teachers and Departmental officials, both at provincial and district level. The continued neglect of the multigrade problems contributed to ongoing marginalisation of the poor, for whom multigrade schools were a reality.

Recommendations from the study included the fact that the Rural Education Directorate should be reinstated within the Department of Basic Education (DBE or the Department) as a permanent unit. There should be a multigrade division. Policy needed to be developed around multigrade teaching and this must take into account the location of the schools, whilst education policy planners were to collect and use regularly-updated quantitative and qualitative data to monitor the trends. That data should be used to establish the cost of special learning materials, teacher training and use of technology in the schools.

It was also stressed that the DBE and teacher training institutions needed to work together to revise teacher training in the initial teacher education phase and during in-service training programmes, to make specific inclusion of courses that dealt with the philosophies, curricula, and practices of multigrade teaching. Prospective teachers should be trained for the different contexts and types of schools where they may be placed. Teacher training institutions should require student teachers to complete practice in multigrade schools.

Other recommendations included the need for enhanced Departmental support at schools, coupled with greater teacher accountability in areas like lesson planning, teaching, grading learners’ work and continuous assessment. District officials who supported schools should be made aware of best practices in multigrade schools and classes. There was a need to raise awareness on multigrade teaching across all levels of the system. There was also a need to strengthen language teaching in schools. Learning materials should be provided in relevant languages. Teachers should be supported with interpretation and implementation of language policy. It was further noted that special incentives, such as increasing the remuneration of teachers that worked in multigrade schools, should be introduced, to encourage recruitment and training of teachers in that sector, and to increase the number of teachers at under-staffed schools that were understaffed. It was finally emphasised that all-inclusive decision making on these issues must be employed.

Enhancing teaching and learning in South African Schools through assessment
Mr G Fremping, Chief Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council, presented the results of the study into the challenges if using assessments to enhance teaching and learning at the systemic and classroom levels. This research sought to address questions on what systemic evaluation said about the provision of quality education for all, the challenges that teachers and district education systems encountered in their attempt to use assessments to improve teaching and learning and how those challenges should be addressed. The research methodology included the National Assessment of Learner Achievement, comprising data collected from 9 000 learners, from 300 schools, across nine provinces, on their achievement levels and the background characteristics. A district assessment system was also used. Case studies used individual and focused group interviews, observations, and documented reviews on how the curriculum and assessment units functioned. Another assessment practice included a teacher classroom assessment, in eight schools across three provinces, using questionnaires, interviews, lesson observations and document reviews.

The findings of this research were summarised. The achievement levels of a large number of Grade 9 learners across the nine provinces were quite poor, being only at elementary level in language and under the required level in Mathematics. Most of the learners from the poorest homes attended the poorest schools and of the few learners who attended well-resourced schools, over 50% did not meet the required standards.

At the provincial and district level, there were significant differences in the way the provinces taking part in the case studies conceptualised curriculum and assessment implementation processes. One province regarded these as separate processes, which posed a greater challenge to the teachers, whilst the other integrated them. The Teacher Assessment Practice study showed that teachers had very limited understanding of how to use assessments to enhance teaching and learning. They used marks and motivational comments as a strategy. Although they attempted to comply with assessment policy demands, they did not understand assumption on the theory of actioning those policies so as to be able to apply them to their unique classroom situations.

The researchers concluded that there was a need to develop an understanding of conditions in schools, and at home, that provided learners in poor schools with the opportunity to succeed. The public and all education stakeholders had to develop learners’ “hunger for learning”. Technology such as cell phones could be used to help poor children access learning materials and communicate with their mentors outside school. It was also stressed that integration of assessment and curriculum units at national and provincial levels was important, but this would require strong synergy across all assessment policies, a well-coordinated assessment and implementation processes and a common purpose for support systems.

National School Effectiveness Study (NSES)
Mr Nick Taylor, Research fellow, JET Educational Services, presented the research findings on the National School Effectiveness Study (NSES). This research design, conducted between 2007 and 2009, covered 268 randomly-selected schools across the country, and followed 8 383 pupils for three years, from Grades 3 to 6. He noted that unfortunately pupils in Gauteng were not followed for this period. The research focussed on home factors, school management teacher practices, and was followed up with the publication of a book.

Children were required to write paragraphs, since writing developed descriptive expression in children, and improved the quality of their thinking, but unfortunately not enough emphasis was placed on this in South African schools.  

Mr Taylor noted that there was a need for a professional civil service, saying that the majority of teachers in South Africa were unable to answer a single ratio problem, and he stressed that unless the teachers were properly taught, they would be unable to pass on the teaching. He cited the main problem in effectiveness as being an incompetence civil service and said that the unions took advantage of this. The strength of the teaching force needed to be enhanced, as well as the level of competency, and this would be done by strengthening the teacher training colleges, and, in addition, by equipping the educators to do their jobs properly.

Creating Literate School Communities: Dual-Medium Biliteracy Project
Mr N Alexanders, Researcher, Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), led the presentation on the Project for creating literate School Communities, and the Dual-Medium / Biliteracy project findings. The assumption for the research was that a learner-centred educational system - one that sought to deliver meaningful access to effective learning to all learners - had to be based on the mother tongue(s) of the learners. It would be likely to take one to two generations to achieve this. Such a system would require teacher re-training.  The concept of mother tongue-based bilingual education implied a much wider range of classroom practices, which included excellent second language teaching approaches.

Dual medium teaching opened the way to persuade sceptical parents that mother tongue education was a valid and valuable method of educating their children. One language would be used as a complementary medium, once the child had acquired ‘second language instructional competence’. Given the global hegemonic significance of English both now and in the foreseeable future, dual medium classrooms that involved English as a complementary medium would eventually position South African education in a very favourable international niche.

Ms Ntombizanele Mahobe, Researcher, PRAESA, said that children loved to have positive role models. In the past, children would be taught in English from Grade 3, but these interventions improved both languages. Children would learn through different genres. The use of songs allowed children to practice English in a non-threatening environment, and shy children would be more likely to engage willingly and participate in classroom activities. Learners were able to express their indigenous (folk) ways as prior knowledge in the classroom. It was noted also that Mathematics and Science learners developed skills in argument, as a result of the conceptual understanding which emanated from systematic bilingual teaching and learning.

Ms Xolisa Guzula, PRAESA, touched on teacher performance development, noting that most teachers found that journal writing was an unfamiliar genre to them. There was often a mismatch between their qualifications and the work that they were doing. The most successful way to train teachers was away from college and in the classroom, where the real practice of teaching was emphasised. She noted that teachers lacked skills in “reflective teaching” – teaching when there were no books to follow. It was vital to empower teachers and improve their actual practise of teaching. The research had helped teachers to understand the curriculum better, and the medium of instruction, but at times that the researchers and mentors were not present, the teachers would reflect and write to researchers, through the journal, which would then serve as a tool to offer information and answer questions that provided solutions for the teachers. However, if management was not involved, it was difficult to get this intervention to succeed.

Mr Neville Alexander, Director, PRAESA, said that there were dictionaries that could help teachers and pupils understand the mother-tongue languages. There was a need to stress teacher education development. It was recommended that each district needed a research centre to continue with that work.

The Chairperson thanked the presenters for such a comprehensive report.

Mr A Mpontshane (IFP) asked how participation that involved teachers going to the learners’ homes would be promoted in rural areas.

Mr Baatjies said that the role of teachers in the rural communities was important and the research found that the teachers in the rural community were ready to take over the project and were active. He noted that in urban areas, teachers tended not to live in the areas of the schools, so the same amount of participation did not happen. However, he also noted that the level of participation even in rural areas was not as active as it had been in the past, and this should be addressed

Mr Mpontshane asked why exactly teachers were not in a position to use the assessment tools. His final question related to the finding that 75% of teachers were “incompetent”, and he asked if the universities were not doing a good job of training teachers, and if the research then implied that teacher training colleges should be reinstated.

Mr Baatjies noted that the education funding for teachers was “not great” and this influenced the quality of teachers produced. He noted, in regard to language, that no university encouraged mother tongue teaching.

Mr Mpontshane noted that those controlling the economy spoke English, and wondered how the research would assist when the mother-tongue teaching was introduced.

Mr Alexanders said that African languages needed to become economically valuable, and that was the basic economic strategy that would be adopted.

Mr Z Makhubele (ANC) asked whether the programme objectives had been achieved in the five year period, and, if they had not, asked what the researchers would do to address this. He thought it would be fairly easy to identify the problems and asked whether the research had also focussed on the challenges that would affect implementation. He wanted to know if there were other countries, especially in Africa, who had faced the same challenges and had solved them and what lessons could be learnt.

Mr Taylor answered that there was need for a twenty-year plan, but this would begin by training teachers.

Ms Vijay said that the Southern areas of Botswana had been taken into account and compared, for the purposes of the Mathematics curriculum, and studies were done into how this country had improved this more than had South Africa.

Ms A Lovemore (DA) agreed with Mr Makhubele’s questions, and referred to a media article that said that Tanzania’s efforts to improve literacy rates were paying off, suggesting that the Committee and Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) should look into what had been done in that country.

Ms Lovemore asked what kind of support was envisaged for multigrade classrooms.

Ms Guzula said that the details around the support to be provided to multigrade teachers could be found in the report, and that there would be a greater focus on how to train teachers to undertake multi-grade teaching.

Ms Lovemore asked what role had to be played by principals and teachers. She noted that ECD did not seem to be a focus area of the report, and suggested that more importance should be accorded to it.

Mr Baatjies said that the Early Childhood Development was poorly resourced, largely because those who ran the ECDs did not wield much power, and there were also structural problems because they were not paid the same amounts as their counterparts at other levels. He argued that every single province needed to establish centres of ECD.

Ms F Mushwana (ANC) asked with whom, in the community, the HSRC worked. She asked what had informed the choice of provinces for the research.

Mr Baatjies answered that the choice of the provinces was based on who had the money to carry out such research, which explained why Gauteng was one of the provinces. There were also attempts to study across both rural and urban areas. Sites where “literacy activists” were active were also selected.

Ms Mushwana also asked what would be done about the challenges of multi-grade teaching. She noted that there were insufficient numbers of district officers offering support, and asked if there were plans to correct that.

Ms Guzula said that the district officer issue needed to be taken care of, and that support needed to be given to them to enable them to support the teachers better in turn.

Ms A Mashishi (ANC) asked what would happen to the provinces that were not visited. She asked what the relationship was between these studies and research undertaken by the DBE, and whether DBE was aware of this research.

Ms Mashishi asked if any solutions had been suggested for learners from poor families.

Mr D Smiles (ANC) asked whether the differences in curriculum highlighted by the research were reported to DBE Head Office. He also wanted to know why Grade 9s were selected for the study, rather than, for instance, Grade 6.

Mr N Kganyago (UDM) asked for a definition of “qualified incompetence” and asked what was in place to try to ensure that teachers would be both qualified and competent.

Mr Taylor answered that a “qualification” was merely a certificate that a person had completed and passed a course – such as school or a university. Currently, about 95% of teachers had “qualified” under short courses. However, competence went to their ability to do the job. The research was based on the Southern and Eastern Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality, and this tested both learners and teachers too. The research highlighted that South African teachers performed poorly on those tests, particularly (in Mathematics) on ratio, fractions and problems, illustrating that they did not have the competence to teach those subjects.

Mr W Madisha (COPE) asked whether a child would understand “Bantu education” and asked how scientific the teacher assessments were.

Mr Alexanders said that “Bantu education” needed to be explained in detail to the parents of the children.

Mr C Moni (ANC) asked whether illiteracy was being determined as it had been in the past, pointing out that many older people were deemed illiterate.

Mr Baatjies said that 14 million adults in South Africa had not completed school, but the literacy was determined by tests that were being sat in the Grades at the schools currently.

Mr Moni questioned the distinction drawn between the richer and poorer child’s results.

Mr Fremping apologised for any misunderstanding and said that the poor vs rich family connection was based on the trends now apparent.

Ms N Gina (ANC) expressed concern as to why there should be a Directorate for Rural Areas, that examined problems different to other schools.

Ms Guzula said that there was a need to place a greater focus on some of the challenges, including those specific to rural areas, and this was the reasoning behind setting up such a directorate; it was not intended to undermine those schools.

The Chairperson said that special needs schools also needed to be taken into consideration, when sampling schools for research purposes.

The meeting was adjourned.


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