Why education colleges should be re-opened

2008-04-26 00:00

A small report in The Witness, April 24, drew my attention: “the National Department of Education is considering re-establishing colleges of education”. I wonder why? The whole college sector was phased out from 1997, with a few colleges incorporated into universities. Two main reasons were given: colleges were very expensive and most delivered poor-quality teacher education. The future of teacher education lay with higher education.

So why the change of heart? Our Director-General for Education, Duncan Hindle, has insisted that there is no shortage of teachers; in fact, there are still thousands of unemployed qualified teachers unable to find work. What a strange set of circumstances. The national output of qualified teachers dropped to about 25% of the projected demand after the closure of colleges, yet in 2007 Hindle maintained that we still had a surplus of qualified teachers. At the same time, the number of unqualified teachers in schools remains unacceptably high.

I support the re-opening of colleges of education for two reasons. Universities may, by law, only admit students who have a matric endorsement and many students who want to become teachers do not meet this requirement. These students may previously have been accepted at colleges of education. Now, their route into the teaching profession is to accept jobs as unqualified temporary teachers and hope to qualify by distance education.

My second reason is that very few student teachers are now specialising in foundation phase. Those students who do are predominantly white, which means that home language instruction for African children in the foundation phase is seriously threatened. The universities have clearly been unable to promote the training of foundation phase teachers, particularly teachers who are able to teach initial reading, numeracy and life skills in the home language of their pupils.

Something different is required for secondary school teaching, where subject knowledge and competence is important. On the radio recently, I heard Professor Mary Metcalf say that our teachers are in dire need of a sound and deep knowledge of their subject, and this was not provided in many colleges of education. There are various ways of interpreting “sound and deep”. In many European countries, a senior secondary school teacher would have a masters degree in the subject he or she teaches. In South Africa, we expect second-year undergraduate level in a teaching subject. As a biologist and a teacher educator, I believe that future secondary school teachers should demonstrate competence in the discipline within the home faculty at university, before they qualify as a teacher of the subject.

Jonathan Jansen, in his weekly column in the Times, repeatedly highlights the dysfunctionality of the education system. In recent articles, he has placed the blame on lazy and incompetent teachers, who are protected by their unions. My own experience is more sympathetic to the teachers: they are incompetent because they don’t know their subjects.

Re-opening the colleges will solve some problems, but it should not be extended to all phases of schooling. Senior secondary school teacher training should stay in the universities, where it belongs.

• Dr Edith R. Dempster is a senior lecturer of education at the School of Education and Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal: Pietermaritzburg campus.

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