Teaching teachers – an innovative primary school set-up in Soweto
A crucial element in creating an inclusive education system is training its teachers – which is where the bulk of the EU’s budget support for education in South Africa goes. One teacher education programme in Soweto is experimenting with a new model, bringing primary school children onto a university campus. It creates a much-needed quality primary school in an under-served area, and bridges theory and practice for the student teachers.
Funda UJabule school (‘Learn and be joyful’, in isiZulu) is a collaboration between the University of Johannesburg and the Department of Education in Gauteng, and was supported through the EU’s Primary Education Sector Policy Support Programme (worth around €122 million).
Undergraduate students taking the University of Johannesburg’s Foundation Phase Education degree spend regular blocks of time observing and assisting at Funda UJabule throughout the year. In turn, the primary school teachers act as mentors to the student teachers. They become adjunct teacher educators of the University, working with the lecturers to create a comprehensive teacher education programme.
In the following video Capacity4dev hears about the Funda model from the teachers, Principal and Dean of the University's Faculty of Education :
“What is unique in what we do, and what seems to be working very well, is that our programme is underpinned by the principle of child study,” said Prof. Sarah Gravett, Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg. “We believe a good primary school teacher must have a sound understanding of child development, so they can adapt their teaching to children’s needs. And that underlies all the work we do.”
In the first year of their degree, students are assigned to a child in Grade R, the youngest year, whom they follow throughout the four years of their degree. The school and the teacher education programme were set up in tandem: when the school opened its doors in 2010 it had two Grade R classes, one each for children speaking isiZulu or Sesotho at home (two of South Africa’s eleven official languages).
The school has expanded year by year, with each new intake of children aligned with a university teaching class. There are now over 485 children and 22 full-time staff members.
“We only admit grade R learners, who then progress to the next grade. We don’t admit children in Grades 2 or 3,” explained Rebecca Maboya, the school Principal. “It helps the school to evaluate in terms of teaching and learning - whatever they give us is what we gave them. It’s an opportunity to evaluate ourselves and see where we’re doing well and where we’re lacking.”
The unique school environment means the university can research good teaching practices. At Funda UJabule, English is introduced as a language of teaching and learning in Grade R in conjunction with the local languages Sesotho and isiZulu. “Switching to English in Grade 4 [which used to be the norm] seems to be hugely problematic, this is why we are already introducing English in Grade R,” said Gravett.
Introducing English earlier on also has the advantage of allowing the university students to follow the lessons, whether or not they also speak the two local languages.
Teachers at Funda decided to use English as the main language of instruction for maths from Grade 1. The reason being, “in many African languages there isn’t consistent terminology for maths,” explained Gravett. “The term triangle might be a full sentence one needs to use to explain the concept triangle, and the teachers might not be consistent in how they use these terminologies. The use of two languages as languages of instruction in the foundation phase is a longitudinal research project.”
The school also serves as a pilot site for other research projects. Following research on children’s early number development, a set of multimodal teacher materials called #taximaths was developed in 2011. It unpacks the stages of children’s early mathematics development, and has led to the standardisation of a diagnostic numeracy test in four South African languages for Grade 1. The test will eventually be made available to the provincial education departments and other users. The next pilot in 2016-17 will develop #taxiscience materials, focusing on children’s early science concept development.
A school for the local community
The school only accepts children who live in the Soweto, the biggest so-called township in South Africa. “You can imagine all the parents want to bring their children to a school associated with a university,” said Gravett. “But we don’t want it to be an exclusive school, so the children must live near to the Soweto campus.” It’s a symbolic place to be doing education – the site of the 1976 uprising.
“So when we set it up, it was important that it was a public school, not a private school,” said Gravett. The school has more resources than many others, but Gravett emphasised that the facilities were designed to be “good, but not great” – so that the university students gain practice in a classroom environment not too far removed from that in which they may end up teaching.
As well as serving Soweto’s children and enriching the teacher training course, the school plans to host engagement projects in the community related to childcare and early education.
“We have a programme in which our students teach the children about gardening and fruit gardens, and that is something we would love to roll out broader and involve parents,” said Gravett. “Another is a literacy programme our parents could benefit a lot from – how to help your child with their homework. We believe the children get a good education, but if we could also set up parent programmes it would have a ripple effect.”
Funda UJabule is also used as a development hub for other local schools. In 2015, four Soweto schools entered a partnership with the Faculty of Education. In 2014-15 they received leadership courses for school management teams and early mathematics cognition training for Grade R teachers, conducted by the Faculty of Education and Funda UJabule staff.
For the teachers, “being part of Funda UJabule is an opportunity on its own for personal growth and development,” said Maboya, the principal. “When you compare our teachers to others, you find the level of our teachers is much higher – the reason being, with this partnership, our teachers get more developmental workshops which makes them up their game; and they have 12-15 student teachers watching them!”
In addition, all the teachers have the opportunity to study at the University of Johannesburg. “One educator is studying towards her PhD, six are doing their Masters and seven are doing an honours degree,” said Maboya.
According to Samantha Brief, who teaches Grade 6 English and Social Science, this is an enormous asset. “In terms of the staff, they are so supportive and highly educated. And they strive for excellence, whereas at other schools you don’t see this motivation to become better and invest in the school with the knowledge we have.”
Meanwhile the university students benefit from the hands-on approach to teaching. Placed in groups of 10 to 15, they work together as a “community of practice,” explained Gravett. “They learn about group dynamics and working in a team. And that prepares them well to work with other people.”
According to Ntsiki Khasu, a former student of the UJ foundation phase programme who now teaches Grade 2 at Funda UJabule, the programme helped to bridge the gap between students’ own educational backgrounds. “Some come from private schools with a lot of access, others from lower class schools where you don’t really know where to start,” said Khasu. “The most useful part of the programme was the methodology – learning how to make your own resources. I learnt that resources somehow bridge the gap between the way you were taught – the way you teach is most likely influenced by the way you were taught.”
“A major issue in South Africa in general and here in Soweto is that many students come from impoverished backgrounds,” said Gravett. “They have the money for their university fees, but maybe not enough to live a decent life as student teachers.”
This means some students drop out – something the University is trying to address through funding support. “We help the students, the good ones, with tutoring jobs, to enable them to continue with their studies, and other financial support is also provided,” said Gravett.
Learning from the model
According to Gravett, “it is quite possible to replicate this model at other universities.” The University of Johannesburg has already helped set up a teacher education programme for the University of Mpumalanga in a collaboration with the Department for Higher Education and Training, using the same model as Funda.
Gravett made four recommendations for scaling up the teacher education model. First, there can’t be a “one size fits all” approach. “We think it’s important that when one has this type of school, one has a clear understanding what role the school will play in the teacher education. If it’s just an add-on, it won’t add value; the planning of your curriculum must be done in tandem with what you want to accomplish in the school.”
Second, “there will have to be some funding to universities - they cannot carry this on their own.” The University of Johannesburg receives some support from the Gauteng Department of Education to run the school; and the Department for Higher Education and Training contributed to the buildings on the campus. The University itself pays the school teachers a stipend for the work they do as teacher educators.
Third, “even though these schools must be public schools, they must have some special status to enable the university to work with the school in a seamless way, which is not quite possible if the school is an ordinary public school.”
And finally, recruiting the right teachers. “You can be a good teacher, but it doesn’t mean you have the capacity to work with teaching students,” said Gravett. “You take on a different role - you’re a teacher with all the important work of a teacher - and yet you must also work with the university students. So you need a special kind of teacher to do this well. We are very lucky with the teachers we have.”
About the Primary Education Sector Policy Support Programme in South Africa
Now completed, the Primary Education Sector Policy Support Programme, worth €122.68 million, aimed to improve learner performance in literacy and numeracy at primary school level. It focused on three main areas - expanding access to quality early childhood development opportunities (Reception Year or pre-school education), especially for poor communities; accelerating the provision of learning and teaching support materials to the poorest primary schools; and improving the initial teacher education system to attract higher numbers of capable primary school teachers, particularly those able to teach in the African languages.
With the EU's support, some of the main achievements were:
The EU continues to support teacher education and development systems through the Teaching and Learning Development programme with South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training.