If teacher salaries are adequate why is South Africa’s public education system still struggling to improve educational outcomes? Over-crowded classrooms aside, are the right candidates being drawn to teaching as a profession?
Arguably the biggest influence on poor educational outcomes are low entrance requirements to study teaching at a tertiary level. Resep’s Teacher Demographics Policy report revealed that Bachelor of Education degrees have lower entrance requirements than other degrees and that most students enrolled for teaching degrees performed significantly worse in matric level maths compared to students enrolled in other degrees (41% compared to 54%). The study found a similar trend in other subjects, albeit to a lesser degree.
Resep researcher, Irene Pampallis, is quoted in the report saying that the low entrance requirements to teaching degrees “may funnel students who are weaker academically into teaching programmes, because they do not meet the entry requirements for more selective programmes.”
It goes without saying that the knock-on impact of this are fewer teachers qualified to teach more rigorous academic subjects such as maths and science. A critical shortage of qualified maths and science teachers has been cited as one of the contributing causes for the country’s dismal maths and science standards. Most universities offering Bachelor of Education degrees don’t require a minimum mark for maths or maths literacy.
The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed that South Africa had the third lowest score globally out of 64 countries when it comes to maths at primary school level, dropping to the second lowest score globally out of 39 countries by grade 9. Less than a third of all learners in grade 12 take maths and only half of those that do take maths pass.
According to the Department of Basic Education, more than half of maths and science heads of departments in secondary schools are not qualified to offer appropriate support to teachers because they have not majored in either of these subjects.
Based on a study the department conducted in 2018, only 43.3% of maths and science departmental heads have the necessary qualifications. The situation is exacerbated by maths and science teachers who have not majored in the subject at higher levels. Is it any surprise then that so many learners opt to study maths literacy rather than maths?
TIMSS, an international body that assesses the maths and science knowledge of learners in Grades 4 and 8 around the world, will conduct its next study later this year. South Africa puts its Grade 9 cohort up for assessment rather than its Grade 8 cohort, meaning that our learners are actually being assessed against learners from around the world one grade lower. That hasn’t helped South Africa with only one in four learners found to have acquired basic maths and science knowledge.
In 2021, only 25% of learners got over 50% maths in grade 12. In 2022, 55% of learners ‘passed’ maths, classified as over 30%.
Resep’s report points out that maths is essential for all foundation phase teachers, as well as teachers who teach mathematical, commercial, or scientific subjects in other grades. At the very least, teachers require at least basic mathematical skills for assessing learners.
Resep researchers Nic Spaull and Peter Courtney say that “at a base level, a teacher cannot teach that which they do not know.”
Various studies have found that maths proficiency at high school level has a higher correlation to a country’s economic growth than proficiency in any other subject. As the ISET Policy Institute explains, “Proficiency in maths implies a higher level of cognitive skills among the labour force, in other words, a high quality of human capital, which leads to technological innovation and productivity gains.”
Other studies have found that even small improvements in the maths skills of a country’s labour force can have a positive impact on a country’s economic growth in the long term.
In South Africa, teacher remuneration is also dependant on teaching experience with less experienced teachers paid less than those with more experience. The problem with this, as the TIMSS report has previously indicated, is that there is often no correlation between years of experience and achievement.
If South Africa is to improve its educational outcomes – including in maths and science - it needs to remunerate high-performing teachers above the industry average, including offering more attractive benefits to act as a retention tool.
Long-term, tertiary institutions need to start implementing more stringent entrance requirements and proactively work to attract school leavers with higher maths and science marks to the teaching profession by, for example, providing them with full bursaries in exchange for a work contract for a specified period post-graduation.
At the same time, high-performing teachers need to be supported with opportunities for further career growth and development. These strategies are nothing new and are ones that most high-performing organisations are well acquainted with.
South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) has an ambitious target of ensuring that 90% of learners pass maths, science, and languages with at least 50% by 2030. It’s unlikely that this goal will be realised unless the Department of Basic Education starts to think out of the box with bold and innovative ideas.