Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Teachers' Conceptions of Standards in South African Basic Education and Training: A Case Study

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Teachers' Conceptions of Standards in South African Basic Education and Training: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Introduction and background

In South Africa, the Department of Basic Education (DBE), formerly known as the Department of Education (DoE), is responsible for the General Education and Training (GET) and Further Education and Training (FET) sectors. The GET includes Foundation Phase (FP), Intermediate Phase (IP) and Senior Phase (SP), which are primary, elementary and secondary (R-12) education bands. It is in the GET band that foundation skills of reading, writing and mathematics are emphasised. For this reason, Taylor, Fleisch and Shindler (2007: 37) contend that '[t]he single most important priority for the education and training system would be to improve the levels of literacy and mathematics of children graduating from our primary schools'.

The importance of acquiring literacy and numeracy skills by learners at the FP level cannot be overstated. Pandor (2008), the then Minister of Education, emphasised that literacy, numeracy and life skills are 'the building blocks upon which solid foundations for learning are built'. The importance of acquiring literacy and numeracy skills is also highlighted in the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) (DoE, 2002), which states that the most important task of the FP teacher is to enable and ensure that all learners can learn to read. Consequently, 40% of teaching time is to be allocated to this task in the FP.

In an effort to raise standards in numeracy and literacy in the GET public sector in general, and in the FP sector specifically, the DBE has and still engages in a number of educational reform initiatives and campaigns. For example, the Drop All and Read Campaign and a tool kit for schools are both aimed at improving the standard of reading among primary school learners. The Foundations of Learning Campaign is meant to create a national focus on improving basic skills of reading, writing and numeracyamongallSAchildren. In addition, more than 10000 publicschools received story books written in all eleven South African official languages (Taylor, Fleisch & Shindler, 2007). Moreover, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED, 2006) developed a multipurpose national and provincial Literacy and Numeracy (LITNUM) strategy to enhance learners' literacy and numeracy skills.

In spite of these efforts, the poor performance of public school FP learners in these learning areas remains a grave social concern. For instance, the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed that South Africa, when compared with 40 countries, had the lowest reading literacy levels (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy & Foy, 2007). Similarly, poor Grade 3 systemic evaluation results of 2001, 2007 and 2011 confirmed this situation. Moreover, Reddy and van Rensburg (2011) reported that only 30% of South African schools perform reasonably well in mathematics, while a whopping 70% underperforms. Furthermore, the 2011 Annual National Assessment (ANA) results indicated that Grades 3 and 6 learners performed poorly in literacy and numeracy across the country with a national average of only 35% (Modisaotsile, 2012: 2). This perpetual poor learner performance led Fleisch (2007) to conclude that South African primary school education is in crisis.

Several reasons have been given to justify these low educational standards. Pandor (2008) cited language barriers in literacy, numeracy and life skills education and emphasised the importance of teacher quantity, quality and ability to teach. Other factors mentioned include poverty, a lack of adequate resources in schools, poor teacher training, teachers' classroom practices, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of parental support (Chisholm, 2004; Modisaotsile, 2012; Pendlebury, 2008). As will be shown later, since there is no universal clarity on the definition of standards (Coetzee & Le Roux, 2001), we suspect that this term is susceptible to different interpretations by teachers, thus affecting their classroom pedagogical practices. …

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