Poor-quality teachers are holding back South Africa’s education system

HALF of all South African pupils who have attended school for five years can’t do basic calculations. This is according to a 2015 TIMMS report on mathematics achievements among Grade 5 pupils in SA.

At the same time, it’s calculated that 10% of the country’s teachers are absent from school each day, while research found that 79% of SA Grade 6 maths teachers were classified as having content knowledge levels below the level at which they were teaching.

Given that teacher quality is one of the biggest factors determining the learning outcomes of pupils, what will it take to improve teacher quality and professionalism in the country?

Numerous suggestions have been floated. But one idea has recently generated particular interest — the introduction of “teacher professional standards”.

Their development began in the United States in the late eighties. It was stimulated by the view that higher expectations for pupil learning could be accomplished only by higher expectations of teaching quality. In the South African context, teacher standards are a response to a lack of teacher accountability. This has been identified as a cause of the poor quality of South African education.

The basic premise of teacher standards is that if you expect more from teachers, don’t allow them into the classroom until they’ve met a basic set of criteria, and hold them to account if they fall short, then the quality of teachers will improve. But introducing teacher standards in SA also comes with a caveat. Research into the value of teacher standards for SA warns that this approach could serve to deprofessionalise the country’s teaching force if not approached carefully. This is because there are effectively two types of teacher standards, and it’s important not to conflate the two.

There are standards that professionalise teaching and standards that simply manage teachers. While standards that professionalise create cultures of collegiality, expertise and pride among teachers, standards that manage can leave them feeling brow-beaten, untrusted and demotivated.

Yet management standards are often mistaken for professional standards. When this happens, teacher morale drops. This is a common trend in countries like SA which have a “vicious” rather than “virtuous” schooling cycle.


The quality of a nation’s teachers cannot be divorced from the quality of its pupils exiting schools. This is because successive cohorts of pupils progress through school, enter university as student teachers, and graduate as teachers where they nurture the next cohort through the cycle. The end of school is therefore the beginning of higher education.

In a virtuous schooling cycle, education is a desirable career choice for top graduates. This allows for competitive entry requirements for teacher education programmes, which in turn allows for rigorous and challenging courses. This, in turn, produces high-quality teachers who improve pupil outcomes. The quality and professionalism of the teachers nurtures the next generation of high-quality teacher trainees.

Compare this to SA, which has a vicious schooling cycle. Initial teacher education is highly variable but generally insufficient... Research on newly qualified teachers indicates that students enter their studies with very poor skills, and leave with little more. Consequently, their pupils do very poorly and teaching is perceived as a low-status career. Teacher education programmes are therefore, in general, unable reliably to attract high-quality graduates. The vicious cycle repeats itself.

In vicious schooling cycles, governments... hold teachers accountable. Standards are used to manage teachers, and to protect pupils from the worst teachers through supervisory surveillance and control. Invariably, the relationship between teacher unions and governments becomes antagonistic and generates feelings of fear and mistrust. This, in turn, alienates the best school graduates who frankly have better career options.


Given its vicious cycle, management standards may be more likely than professional standards in SA. Does this mean that SA teachers are damned to the stick, rather than the carrot? Not necessarily. There are many excellent teachers who are hungry for opportunities to develop in ways that nurture autonomy and collegiality.

SA should not shy away from developing and promoting professional best practice, and providing the opportunities for teachers to reach them. At the same time, management standards must be considered carefully. While they may prevent the worst teaching, they’re unlikely to create the professional culture that promotes the best teaching and attracts the best candidates. — The Conversation.

• Natasha Robinson is a PhD candidate and research consultant, University of Oxford.

• Nick Taylor, senior research fellow at Jet Education Services, also contributed to this article.

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