Education for Development in Hard Times—Part II

By Sheldon G. Weeks, Saches eNEWS

“Education for Development in Hard Times” was the theme of the annual Saches (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society) conference held in Stellenbosch in November 2009. In Part II we look at some of the debates on higher education and teacher education.

In “Hard times, hard choices—how can universities weather the global recession?” Dr Patricia Walker of the University of London investigates sustainable strategies, policies and practices. She is keenly aware that the politics of scarcity are very different from the politics of prosperity. Many of the changes imposed by state bureaucracies on higher education institutions (HEIs) are counter productive. The challenge to HEIs is “how to accommodate more students without commensurate additional state support”. The problem is how to get decision makers and politicians to comprehend that during recessions “societies need the services of higher and further education more than ever to respond to a new and unfamiliar economic and social climate … as new learnings are the catalyst for new beginnings”. To cutback on HEIs is to impede progress—“At a time when we need teachers and researchers more than ever, universities are closing departments and sacking staff”. This has been labelled an “act of academic vandalism” by the head of Britain’s largest union of teachers in higher education. Decision makers and politicians need to be made aware of the “economic benefits of higher education and the extent to which participation in higher education affects participation in the labour market”. The new dimension that is now being debated is, “how much private expenditure is appropriate in state sponsored higher education?” In Britain HEIs constitute a form of “big business”. They also contribute to problem solving through research, development and innovation. Links between HEIs and the economy have transformed and expanded. Investments in higher education have long-term and unpredictable beneficial consequences that are often impossible to anticipate. During this recession billions has been pumped into vulnerable businesses, but a hard and punitive line has been taken against HEIs, expecting cuts and closures. Dr Walker gave examples of how HEIs have contributed to new beginnings in Britain. She also drew on comparative analysis to assess the impact of internationalisation and globalisation on knowledge-based enterprises. She concluded that, “higher education is here to stay, but not as we know it … students want teachers confident in their expertise, feedback they can work with, tutors they can trust to give them time and support when they need it”. She predicts that this will lead to a unified tertiary systems and more no-frills universities.

Is teaching an occupation under threat? A panel of three presentations by staff at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) address this and other related issues. First, Fabian Arends presented noting that, “Teacher shortages are a global phenomenon and the solutions and strategies to these are often linked either to demand or supply-side strategies. The call for re-opening teacher education colleges in South Africa has been a response to the question of shortages and essentially a call for intervention on the supply side. The papers in this panel approach the question by reflecting on the implications for this question of research conducted on teacher education at the HSRC over the last four years”. He observed that in 2006 South Africa needed 20,000 teachers per annum, but the estimate for 2015 was 94,000 new teachers—while the system was producing only 6,000.  The stock of teachers was estimated at 372,449, but the Department of Education’s (DOE) database is not reliable and qualifications of teachers are missing. Teachers are teaching subjects they were not prepared for—they fear teaching Mathematics and Science. Some schools are running on empty, causing mergers and closures of schools.

Michael Cosser of the HSRC presented a “Portrait of the teacher as a young student”. He explored in depth the issue of there being a shortage of quality teachers by looking at the quality of the education system. His sample was a “2006 cohort of South African teacher education first-year students who had been in Grade 12 the previous year”. They were compared with non-teachers across eight variables including “academic performance in grade 12; the nature and extent of career guidance received at school and on admission to university; influences on enrolment decisions; professional aspirations; socio-economic status and family background; and sense of well-being (current level of happiness and perceived ability to exercise choice in decision-making). Significantly none of them had passed Mathematics with an A or B, while 14 percent of the others had. If “Individuals choosing to become teachers were thought to be generally less talented than the workforce as a whole” and too many were poor students when in school, this perpetuated low standards in education systems. These findings are replicated in other Southern African countries.

The third paper in the panel was by Professor Linda Chisholm, of the HSRC, now advisor to the Minister of Education at the DOE in Pretoria. “Redistribution Logics, Inequality and Poverty Reduction Policies in Education: Addressing Teacher Shortages in South Africa” is an intensive research-based paper that raises a critical question for developing country education systems on the availability and quality of teachers. “Without a sufficient number of teachers adequately prepared and able to teach, it is difficult to achieve any educational or poverty-reduction goals”. Professor Chisholm notes that between 1994 and 2008 teachers were moved from areas of over-supply to places of under-supply. She now wants to question the efficacy of this strategy. Has it achieved its goals? What can be learned from it? “The belief underlying the strategy to redistribute teachers rather than invest in teacher education has been a tenacious one, with consequences for the present, and especially for teacher equity and quality.” She has reviewed the issues related to this formulae, policy, research and practice, across three periods and considered their political and economic contexts. 1994-1999 was the period of teacher redistribution and teacher rationalization. 1999-2004 was fraught by curricular reforms, teacher migration, altered teacher supply to schools and the impact of HIV and AIDS. In the most recent period new policy initiatives have had a “specific emphasis on teacher education, showing that the redistribution logic remains, however, strong and investment in teacher education weak”. Each of these three periods was examined in great detail. Then she concluded by looking at the impact of hard times and the relative merits of redistributional versus investment strategies. The restriction of teacher supply during the 1990s has led to a crisis in the 2000s. Twelve and a half percent of the teachers have HIV and AIDS. Panic has led to supply side interventions and short-term measures like the re-opening of old colleges and creating new ones. The quality of teachers remains a serous problem, with poor teachers being redistributed between schools. Corruption at provincial levels has also exacerbated the situation. Missing has been greater investment in teacher education, yet “investment is the key to success”. Universities are now setting up rural centres as a stopgap solution.

In another paper “Optimal and Minimal Pedagogies for the Poor” Wayne Hugo and Volker Wedekind of the University of KwaZulu-Natal ask, “What guidelines should be followed in the up-grading of teachers?” They compare Basil Bernstein and C.E. Beeby. “Central to the argument is a key variable that enables a shift from a stripped down minimal pedagogy for the poor to a more optimal pedagogy for the poor—the education and training of teachers. Poorly educated teachers will struggle with the sophisticated strategies demanded by optimal pedagogies and given that most teachers in a developing context are poorly educated we must firstly work on what a minimal pedagogy for the poor would look like, one that works with badly educated teachers as a key variable”. Bernstein being pursued would lead to 256 variations in pedagogies (not dichotomies). His research was with working class learners, and he proposed different pedagogies for different situations.  But where did he go wrong? What then is an optimal pedagogy for the poor? Beeby, who identified three stages, knew that what is medicine in one country is poison in another. His critique of optimal pedagogy recognizes that teachers are not the same, even across different type of schools. Where teachers are not well trained schools remain underdeveloped. He recommends that educators “go for what works” and to change from “dysfunctional formats to functional formalism”.  As an example, recognize that pacing is critical and that children may need to be given more time to learn. “Beeby was worried about the attempt to introduce education for all without the wherewithal in the system to cope. Such a project, he maintained, would be ’infinitely harder’ than anything the older Western nations had to deal with educationally. It is in precisely such an infinitely hard project that the world is now engaged”.

Mark Mason of the Comparative Education Research Centre in “Can and should ‘established best practice’ be implemented in local development contexts?” considered three assumptions frequently associated with the claim that ‘established best practice’ can and should be implemented in local development contexts, with a view to encouraging those in the field of international educational development to tread a little more cautiously.  Following a preliminary consideration of the origins of ‘best practices’, he addressed three questions associated with the implementation of ‘established best practice’ in local development contexts: 1) is there such a thing as ‘evidence-based best practice’?  2) (even) if best practices could be quite specifically identified, can they be implemented locally, given the importance of context?  3) and if the answer to this question is yes, should ‘best practices’ be implemented in different, local development contexts?  Would this focus on technical efficiency and the consequent exclusion of local democratic participation simply relieve local participants of the responsibility to engage in the risky, political and imaginative efforts that are probably necessary to remake the realities of their world?

A writing workshop was held by Mark Mason to help academic researchers—staff and doctoral students—to plan and write better by focusing on issues of structuring and communication of ideas (it did not cover issues of research methodology or project management). The focus was on argumentation, logical reasoning, structure, and so on—this covered: 1) the abstract as a means of clarifying objectives (both for the writer and the reader) including the eleven essential points of a good abstract; 2) the use of a purpose and content rubric to structure, manage and tighten writing; 3) technique including writing an argument (for example, a structured literature review) from documentary sources; 4) The use of language and terminology; 5) The different ways of defending an argument; and 6) writing the conclusion. 

Rev Fr Romanus Olweny and Mary Ocheng of Uganda presented on the impact on teachers of living and working in a war zone. Other themes presented and explored at Saches2009 were history of education, rural education, languages of instruction, the value of comparative education, promoting student-led research, the management of universities and the role of teachers’ unions.

The new leadership of Saches consists of: President, Professor Sarie Berkhout of Stellenbosch University; Deputy, Professor Harold Herman, UWC; Secretary, Professor Charl Wolhuter of North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus; and Treasurer, Petronella van Niekerk of Unisa. The 2010 conference will be in Istanbul as part of WCCES and in 2011 in Uganda.