Durban - Many of South Africa’s maths teachers were bunking class because they were unsure how to teach primary school numeracy, a study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has found.

The study also found that principals did not consider having unmanned chalk boards a big deal, and that often teachers left their classrooms to attend union and Education Department meetings.

While high teacher absenteeism in South Africa is well known, what makes this study significant is that it gives some understanding of its causes for the first time.

The study involved academics from the HSRC, Stanford University in the US, and the University of Botswana. The researchers scrutinised pupils’ notebooks, video-documented lessons and administering tests and questionnaires to pupils and teachers in 2009 and made public a report last year.

Noting earlier studies which showed that local children fared poorly when pitted against those from other African countries, it compared the maths performance of 5 500 Grade 6 pupils from Botswana to the North-West.

Despite their very different political histories, the governments of both countries spent similar money on education, and had similar education policies. They found a “culture of inefficiency” to be pervasive in the North West schools, with a staggering 60 percent of the scheduled lessons untaught.

In Botswana, this was the case in 40 percent of schools.

The study said that in Grade 6, how well a child did could be directly associated with the quality of their teachers.

The report concluded that most schools in South Africa had organised themselves “to produce something that is not pupil achievement”, which was a “shocking wake-up call”.

On Tuesday, the HSRC’s Professor Linda Chisholm said the research pointed the finger largely at union and department meetings for teacher absenteeism.

“But teachers also confessed… that they would often just go and hang out in the staff room because they felt unconfident of their knowledge,” she said.

Chisholm said there was a culture in South Africa, as in the US, that celebrated the right of the individual to do as they pleased.

“When schools function properly, the log book will be monitored and the principal and school governing body will take steps to deal with teachers who are regularly absent,” she said.

KwaZulu-Natal Education Department head Nkosinathi Sishi said that citing a poor grasp of the curriculum as a reason for not showing up to class, was a “lame excuse”.

Since 2009, Sishi said his officials had clamped down on teacher absenteeism, and that the proof was in the province’s improved 2012 matric results.

The national general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), Mugwena Maluleke, said “some” absenteeism could be explained. Sadtu’s leadership has proclaimed its commitment to “bringing back professionalism”, and Maluleke believed teachers were demonstrating that by teaching after hours to get the job done.

Maluleke said that when Sadtu held teacher development programmes, it applied to the department, which assessed the impact of the absence.

He said that on occasion it was also necessary to have teachers leave school early to be consulted on a bargaining mandate “to avoid industrial action”.

Anthony Pierce, the KwaZulu-Natal head of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), said his union was running curriculum content workshops for teachers on Saturdays. Naptosa would only call its members out of class in exceptional cases, he said.

From the 2012 Annual National Assessments, it emerged that the country’s Grade 6 pupils could manage an average of just 27 percent for maths.

KwaZulu-Natal’s Grade 6 pupils averaged 28 percent.

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The Mercury