Maths academy contributes to SA’s teaching skills deficit

2014-03-26 00:00

“WE feel equipped.” There were nods of agreement when Gcina Sithole stood up and described the benefits he and the rest of a group of maths teachers had derived from a term at Hilton College’s Vula Maths Academy.

The first full-time eleven-week programme ends this week. For the 13 teachers from township and semi-rural schools it’s been an intensive, eye-opening time, with some encountering teaching aids like laptops and Powerpoint for the first time.

The idea for the academy grew out of the Vula programme that Hilton College has been running since 2001.

“Vula means open and this programme was about opening the facilities and resources of a privileged community to the underprivileged of the area,” said director Lloyd Smuts.

Vula has focused on a particular area of need — upgrading the skills of maths and science teachers — and funding to run it was raised from outside donors. The school provides support in kind in the form of premises and electricity, and initially Hilton teachers volunteered their services in their spare time.

“We realised in 2004 that for Vula to grow and have an impact we needed full time members of staff,” said Smuts. Four more staff members were acquired, all people who were retiring from teaching.

“The majority of our work now takes place in term time at schools,” said Smuts, with staff travelling to Bergville, Wembezi, Msinga, Bulwer and Vulindlela. Teachers from Edendale and Imbali schools come to Hilton College for their lessons.

“About 90 schools’ teachers interact with us two to three times a term,’’ he said. “And in the holidays we take over the boarding houses and give residential courses for these and other teachers.” According to independent curriculum specialist Dr Sharon Grussendorff who has done evaluations of Vula schools, there is a strong link between teacher attendance at workshops and the performance of their pupils in matric exams.

Explaining how the maths academy came about, Smuts said about three years ago, Sue Southwood, Vula’s head of maths, said she needed more time with the teachers. More funding was obtained and the term-long programme was developed. Two years in the planning, the maths academy is operating with the assistance of the KZN Department of Education, which selected the teachers, and the Durban University of Technology’s (DUT) Indumiso campus, which provided replacement teachers in the classrooms of the schools the academy’s participants came from. These replacements were students who needed to do teaching practicals.

Participants on the programme each received a laptop loaded with the latest maths software, which they will take away to use in their schools if they pass the course. “They’ll have done an estimated 400-450 hours of maths this term,” said Smuts. “They normally do 80-85 hours a year.”

He believes the Vula model could be replicated around the country by other resourced schools to make a substantial contribution to the country’s teaching skills deficit.

For the teachers on the course, maths lessons will never be the same again. “We’re really grateful for Vula exposing us to all this,” said Nomonde Monakali from Sukuma. “We hope other schools will follow.”

“And we hope other teachers will respond to the invitation to come to the programme,” said Bafana Mthembu from Gobindlovu High in Elandskop.

The next intake into the academy will start on the first day of next term.

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