Education: Big Challenges – Big Ideas
Ms van Heerden, special guests, presenters, conference delegates and visitors
Please accept my sincere thanks for re-arranging your programme to accommodate my earlier commitments today which included travelling to Napier to open the new Agulhas School of Skills – another exciting development in the ongoing expansion and refinement of schooling in the Western Cape. My apologies – particularly to my fellow presenters - for any inconvenience which these changes may have caused. In the close-knit world of schooling I realise that it is inevitable that there will be delegates at this conference who were also at the conference earlier this week of the SA Girls’ School Association in Stellenbosch at which I spoke. My apologies to you as well – not for having to listen to me twice – for that you must blame the organisers – but for the occasional repetition of things I said in Stellenbosch on Wednesday. Madame President, I was encouraged when I saw the theme of your conference – Education: Big Challenges – Big ideas. And I am delighted that an organisation such as SAPA is pitching its activities at this level.
Increasingly throughout the world it is being acknowledged that the existence of professional associations and groups of this nature are fundamental to reform and improvement in schooling. Slowly but surely in South Africa there is an emergence of collections of teachers wanting to learn from each other and to develop and share ideas about best practice and their professional responsibilities – whether at a subject, phase or institutional leadership level. We bargain furiously and energetically at an employee/employer level. Surely we need to put in the same energy and to act with the same focus when we deal with what is our core business as teachers! I started my address to the SAGSA conference in Stellenbosch with a reference to the opening speech in November 2012 by Louise Robinson the then President of the Association of Girls’ School in the UK at their annual conference. She spoke – not surprisingly – about change and the challenges which change poses to schooling.
Amongst the many excellent observations she made was the following:
"We all know that knowledge is power, and we revere the people who have that knowledge: doctors, lawyers, professors, etc, but in this world of Wikipedia all knowledge is available and accessible to all of us. This means the power-base which the professions held, is crumbling.
"I repeat – This means that the power-base which the professions held, is crumbling. This is an observation which needs serious and honest examination."
No one is suggesting that we have reached the situation in which people routinely undertake their own brain surgery. In fact as a general rule people still bow to the professional expertise of medical practitioners in matters relating to their health. This is a combination of many things – the language of illnesses, the price to be paid for ignoring symptoms and the immediacy of pain. However, even in the medical world people are to a limited extent turning to alternatives in a world of generic medicines and internet treatment sites. Where does this leave us in education? Are we more or less vulnerable to the reduction in our professional authority? And let me make it clear I am not here speaking about your authority as Principal in your school but rather about your authority as a professional in your chosen field of education. Let’s examine briefly a number of considerations as follows:
1. As Principals you are certainly not immune to the type of reduction in your professional authority to which Louise Robinson referred in the quotation I used from her Presidential address. As a result of the knowledge explosion and broadening of popular communication in recent times there is little mystery about school life in the eyes of most people.
We are all experts – parents, learners, the media and, I hesitate to say, even politicians.
2. The expansion of alternative modes of education has also contributed to this reduction – distance learning, IT assisted learning and home schooling are three obvious examples. Home schooling on its own has expanded at a very significant rate in South Africa in recent times and there can be no doubt that the increasing use of hand held devices on the back of broadband access will further empower self-learning.
The same technology applied to other economic activities often resulted in significant loss of jobs but sometimes in the creation of new ones associated with the technology itself. There is an interesting debate gathering momentum in education about the extent to which this development will push the teaching profession into new roles within the teaching and learning process – for example, from teacher to facilitator to organiser.
3. The on-going search in South Africa (and I must add in public school systems in many other parts of the world) for explanations as to the continued general unacceptable quality outcomes of the system as a whole often calls into question the professional knowledge of teachers.
The recently released First National Report of NEEDU (the National Education and Evaluation and Development Unit) entitled “The State of Literacy Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase” is an attempt to get to the bottom of this unacceptable quality. NEEDU studied 133 schools across all nine provinces and focused on why so many learners are failing to achieve basic literacy and numeracy skills in the Foundation Phase (grades 1 to 3). The study found that the majority of learners in poor schools start falling behind required literacy and numeracy levels in their first year, and by the time they end the “Foundation Phase” in grade 3, many have effectively dropped out or will fail to keep up with the requirements of the curriculum in their later years. The report presents a number of conclusions as to why this is happening, including:
• A large proportion of South African teachers lack subject content knowledge or pedagogical teaching skills.
• There is on-going slippage between qualifications and competence
• The report also raises the question of is this a situation in which teachers cannot or will not? Obviously, there will be much debate about the report and its findings but it will almost certainly add to the challenge which I am sketching for you as leaders in your profession. And that challenge is the steady erosion of the professional authority of educators.
4. Any system of public schooling (such as the one we have in South Africa) which locates significant original powers at the level of the schools themselves – while having many advantages also presents challenges to your professional authority and status.
I will mention just two briefly: The Principal is at best an ex officio member of what is often seen by the school community to be the real management of the school as a whole – the SGB. The obvious example is in the critical professional area of school discipline where in too many schools SGBs will claim that they are responsible for school discipline when in fact their role is limited to developing a code of conduct and dealing with matters that could constitute serious misconduct. The critical point to be made about the professional authority of the Principal is that it is entirely his or her decision as to whether a disciplinary matter goes to the SGB or not. This emphasis on the professional authority of the Principal was confirmed by the High Court in the case of an Eastern Cape school. It is tempting for a Principal to devote time and energy to financial and other hard management issues rather than the really professionally challenging ones of curriculum delivery and HR management in support of that curriculum delivery.
Madame President, if you take all of the above you are faced with a reality to which an association of the stature of SAPA could make a massive contribution. Do our actions as Principals of schools at all times reflect a level of expertise and professional experience which encourages people – particularly parents – to have confidence in our judgement and in our efforts to develop learners to their full potential? Or do we have to live in a world of second-guessing and contestation about what is after all our core business?
I want to close with a brief look at the application of this thinking to what is often seen as quite a mechanical process i.e. the grades 3, 6 and 9 systemic testing in the Western Cape. Too often this type of testing is seen merely as a means to obtaining data to be used in planning and setting benchmarks. However, it is useful also to consider the extent to which there are broader professional implications in the implementation of the sort of systemic testing which we use in this Province.
Are there benefits to the system outside the generation of useful data? There are four examples of these broader implications which come to mind immediately, as follows:
1. Both the testing and the public releasing of the results have broadened and deepened accountability in our school system. No longer does society have to wait for the results of the external Grade 12 – the National Senior Certificate or Matric – examination to gauge the effectiveness of the system. The testing provides an earlier indication in our Primary schools as well as a more regular indicator at key stages of our schooling system. Constructively used this is invaluable information.
2. The various processes associated with the testing make up a powerful and cost effective teacher development tool. Exemplars are supplied from which teachers are able to determine appropriate standards and learn more about the nature and levels of questions. Feedback indicates that this is producing a more confident and knowledgeable teaching corps in this province.
3. The proper analysis of the test results also confirmed the importance of the provision of textbooks and readers. This province has as a result committed massive resources to ensuring that these are provided.
4. The format of the presentation of the results provides each school with a wealth of information about outcomes in other schools per circuit, district and the province which further encourages and strengthens realistic and appropriate school achievement. In addition, the tests scores are analysed for each school in terms of the actual component skills activities involved in the successful mastery of literacy and numeracy. So, for instance, the school will know how well in Grade 6 mathematics each of the following aspects is being taught and understood:
• Numbers, operations and relationships
• Patterns, functions and algebra
• Space and shape
• Data handling
There can be no doubt that the intelligent use of systemic testing by the WCED and by our schools can play a significant part in broadening the professional authority of the system.
District officials, Principals, teachers and members of the public are better informed and equipped to play their appropriate role in teaching, assisting and supporting our young people to achieve their potential and to take up useful, constructive roles in society. You as Principals have a central role to play. My appeal to you as members and to SAPA as an organisation is to use your capacity to push this great profession forward so that society is sure that your knowledge and understanding are critical to the successful development of our young people. I hope that today, I will have sparked some debate right here. I thank you for your tireless work in our schools.