The clueless cycle


Much effort has gone into reducing unemployment since 1994. In 2014 the DHET released the top 100 occupations in demand. One alarming factor is the number ‘100’. Imagine how many other occupations needs to be recognised outside the demand threshold.

In the fourth quarter of 2017 the unemployment rate was 26.7 percent, down from 27.7 percent. With more than 5 million people unemployed South Africa needs a miraculous solution to solve this predicament. One of the many reasons we haven’t been able to eradicate unemployment as fast as we may have hoped lies in our education system, or rather, as I would prefer to call it – our schooling system.

The bill of rights with its emphasis on education, particularly the right to a basic education, has made it possible for the government to build more schools and to have 1,148,076 learners in grade 1 in 2016. When dealing with learners one should always acknowledge that there’s a very great difference between learners who just pass and make it to the next grade and learners who produces results of high quality.  

In the South African schooling system the idea to move learners through the system is a norm. This is one the reasons the country has a high number of scarce of skills, particularly in maths and science related fields. There’s a World Bank study I always refer to when dealing with issues that affect learners. The study was conducted in Limpopo, where 400 12 year old learners were asked to work out the answer for 7 x 17 – 130 of the 400 got the right answer. The same question was presented in word form in English. Researchers asked the learners: “If there are seven rows of 17 chairs, how many chairs are there?” None of the children answered correctly.

What may be surprising to some is that the issue of mathematics doesn’t end with learners. Teachers suffer from a similar problem. The Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ, 2007) tested a sample of 401 Grade 6 mathematics teachers. They were asked to apply the BODMAS rule to some question – 54% couldn’t answer correctly, that’s about 217 teachers. With the learner-teacher ratio averaging at 30.4:1 we can conclude that at least 6582 learners suffered from this.  

A study by The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE, 2017) looking at teacher professional standard in South Africa stated that Finland is a good example of a virtuous schooling cycle. Finland is commonly cited as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. It is characterised by low levels of inequality, careful selection of student teachers from the top tenth percentile of school graduates, rigorous and lengthy theoretical and practical training, and intensive mentoring in early professional life. Selection of students into ITE programmes is also a rigorous process involving a national entrance examination based on selected articles on teaching and education, followed by a consideration of the candidates’ graduating scores and out-of-school accomplishments. The education of candidate teachers is similarly thorough, culminating in a Master’s degree with a strong research focus.

Finland scores consistently highly on international comparative tests of student achievement, even though its only national or regional testing systems are at the end of the final school year. Needless to say, the teaching profession is ranked by graduates as one of the most desirable career paths. This in turn, allows the selection of the most promising prospective teachers from the most able and motivated school leavers.

At first I thought I understood the list of 100 occupations in demand, until I went back to it. Not understanding the list denied me the will to see or understand what this demand gap really means. What was so interesting to note was that all the top 10 skills in demand require an undergraduate to have studied and passed mathematics.

1,148,076 learners go into Grade 1 with excitement, only to be taught by clueless teachers. However, this not a problem to our system. When the learners become clueless too, we push them through the system and we have a very nice way of doing this – we say we are condoning them. These condoned learners then grow to be clueless teenagers who, in Grade 10, run away from mathematics for maths literacy. Upon completing their matric, many of these condoned learners don’t get admitted to the courses of their choice. In turn this leaves a huge gap in the economy.

Some of these condoned learners apply for a qualification in education, they get admitted. Clueless as they are, they make it through and come back to teach 1 million learners who start Grade 1. This cycle goes on and on. Call it the clueless cycle.

Nicholas Spaull in his article, ‘Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know’ says: “It is one of the scandals of higher education that after almost two decades of democracy our education facilities have not managed to create an in-service training program that has been rigorously evaluated and proven to raise teacher content knowledge.”      

The last thing our schooling system needs is a group of undergraduates with limited careers to pursue and the worst thing that can happen to any schooling system is having clueless teachers.

Unless we go back and understand the list of scarce skills we are very far from producing quality learners. The focus has to be on teachers. The longer it takes to build quality teachers, the longer it will take to meet the demand of scarce skills, resulting in more young people being unemployed, some of them with tertiary qualifications.  

The list also revealed that there’s a demand for primary teachers in mathematics. There’s also a demand for Grade 10-12 teachers in mathematics and physical sciences. So, we have a schooling system that is in demand of maths and science teachers and on the other side of the coin we have learners and teachers with low content in these subjects.

Unless the teachers currently in the system build high quality learners in maths and science or the higher institutes of learning build teachers with high quality content and practice in both maths and science, our unemployment and the high rate of scarce skills will never be resolved. This is our only way of breaking the clueless cycle.


Mduduzi Mbiza is a writer and researcher specialising in the area of education