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PIRLS results shock, but not enough

The PIRLS 2016 scores released on 5 December 2017 are striking deep chords of disappointment in everyone involved in schooling in South Africa.

In recent months, we have been encouraged by improvements in learner scores on international tests in Maths and Science in Grades 8 and 9 (TIMSS) and in Reading and Maths in Grade 6 (SACMEQ).  So there were justifiably high hopes for improvements in Reading Literacy at Grade 4 level as measured by PIRLS. Alas, the scores are a bitter disappointment, showing that despite years of attention to reading in the primary school, eighty percent of all learners still cannot read for meaning - if they can decode the text at all.

How does this come about? Research indicates two main sources of dysfunction in the school system. First, there is a lack of discipline among the majority of the nearly 400 000 educators responsible for delivering learning. Teachers are often late for school and leave early, if they come at all. Principals seem powerless to do anything about it, even though it is their job and they have all the legal machinery to hold teachers accountable for fulfilling their most basic duty - being in school and teaching. District level Circuit Managers are aware of this problem and complain about it to all who will listen, but also seem to think that it is not their responsibility to discipline those principals. We don’t need inspectors to form another costly layer to the education bureaucracy; we just need people to do the jobs they are well paid to do. This behaviour has been called ‘quiet corruption’, since it involves taking money but not providing the services paid for.

President Mbeki called for an end to these practices in 1998, and the mantra has been frequently repeated since, including by President Zuma in a statement this year. But nothing happens. As a country, we seem to think that once we pronounce on something, the problem will be solved. The truth is that lack of discipline in the civil service is partially responsible for robbing children, predominantly the poor, of their education legacy. Countries as diverse as Japan and Cuba managed to eliminate illiteracy entirely in their respective societies in a few decades. But the difference between these countries and South Africa today is the presence of a disciplined and well-trained civil service.

But there is a second, even more debilitating practice that is only secondarily the responsibility of government. This is that the training our new teachers are receiving at our universities is inadequate to the task of teaching reading in our primary schools. The problem was first identified in a damning research report published by the Council on Higher Education in 2010 [1] and confirmed by the Initial Teacher Education Research Project (ITERP) report published by JET in 2016 [2]. This is undoubtedly the most important problem in our school system and arguably the country’s most urgent challenge. If children are not taught to read with comprehension by the end of Grade 3, then all other learning is massively compromised.

Two major kinds of effort are currently underway aimed at addressing the problem of poor teacher capacity in teaching reading. First, there are initiatives aimed at improving the pedagogical skills of teachers already in the system. Examples include the Early Grade Reading Study, led by the Department of Basic Education and Professor Fleisch of Wits University, which is showing encouraging results in two pilot rollouts. It is obviously imperative that we find ways of improving the skills of teachers in service and projects such as EGRS need strong support.

But, second, surely the permanent solution to the problem of poor reading pedagogy is to train our new teachers better in the first place? And here the universities have a critical role to play. While  teachers’ scores on Maths and Reading Literacy tests indicate that the universities are doing a better job than the former training colleges did, it is still not nearly good enough. Newly qualified primary school teachers need to exhibit competence in teaching reading, writing and mathematics before they bleed more incompetence into the system. Stop the bleeding at source and train our new teachers better. This is the task of the Primary School Teacher Education Project (PrimTEd) [3] led by the Departments of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Basic Education (DBE) and managed by JET. Through PrimTEd, teacher educators at all 23 universities which offer teacher education are collaborating on improving their curricula for primary school teachers. PrimTEd will take years to reach a critical mass of expert teachers, but we are unlikely to significantly change the culture of reading instruction in our schools until we embark on this task.

PrimTEd is coupled with an important initiative that is being championed by the South African Council for Educators (SACE), with support from JET, to develop professional teaching standards. This process takes place with the recognition that the quality of teaching in South African classrooms is highly variable and that there is little shared understanding between teachers regarding what constitutes professional teaching. To address this problem, SACE is developing a set of standards for professional teaching that is theoretically informed, contextually appropriate and widely accepted by stakeholders.

This is not a time to become complacent or despondent. In a country that has become shell-shocked for many reasons, let’s not ignore the shock of PIRLS 2016 which shows us that little progress seems to have been made in this area in our 23 years of democracy. This situation will continue into the future unless we support projects such as those mentioned above and address the problem of new teacher selection, education and licensing with a sense of urgency.


[1] http://www.che.ac.za/sites/default/files/publications/Higher_Education_Monitor_11.pdf

[2] http://www.jet.org.za/resources/deacon-iterp-final-composite-report.pdf/view and http:/www.jet.org.za/clearinghouse/iterp for more on ITERP

[3] http://www.jet.org.za/clearinghouse/primted