Launchpad Lessons: Chronicles of a Distance PGCE in Foundation Phase Teaching

By Annie Mafunganyika-Ndlovu, Dean of Academics and Senior Lecturer at Instill Education

As the founding Dean of Academics at Instill Education, I have had the privilege of pioneering a novel distance Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) program in foundation phase teaching. If you are familiar with Instill Education’s journey, you will know that our aim has always been to revolutionise the African education landscape; to overcome the historical challenges and controversies that have long plagued this vital sector. As we continue on this journey, I intend to share what we’ve learned thus far, the background of our program design, and why we believe our approach can be an extremely effective way to train educators for the foundation phase.

A Complicated Landscape

The foundation phase, encompassing Grades R to 3, is widely recognised as the most crucial period in a child’s educational development. In 2011, the South African government demonstrated its commitment to this critical Phase by establishing the ambitious support program ‘Strengthening Foundation Phase Teacher Education’ in partnership with the EU, and introducing the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Foundation Phase). This PGCE FP NQF 7 qualification enables students to become professional educators, provided they have completed an appropriate bachelor’s degree or an approved 360-credit diploma at NQF 6. 

However, despite this provision and the increasing demand for qualified Foundation Phase educators, the PGCE FP remains an uncommon path to qualification and continues to spark controversy. This was evident in 2017 when the Deputy Director General for University Education issued a communique addressing school leaders in some provinces who had refused to hire individuals with this qualification, claiming it was insufficient for employment. 

Fast forward five years and Instill Education has emerged as one of only two accredited Higher Education Institutions offering this qualification in South Africa. We fully appreciate the argument made by those who do not believe that the PGCE FP is right for the SA education environment. The challenges faced in schools are broad and complex, and even more so in the Foundation Phase where teachers are required to cover so many subject areas. Our response is that South Africa is in desperate need of more teachers, particularly in the Foundation Phase. Do we believe the PGCE FP is right for every student-teacher, or every school? Certainly not. However, we do not believe this means we should throw the baby out with the bath water and get rid of the program altogether. There are many potential students, and many schools, who could absolutely benefit from this program, adding vital capacity at a time when South Africa needs every teacher it can get. We believe that success with this program can be achieved through the right approach to learning, student selection, and the development of relationships between HEIs and the schools into which graduates are placed.

Embracing Exploration, Meaning-Making, and Knowledge Transfer

Our learning approach is grounded in our extensive and ongoing review of global best practices in teacher education, and honed through many years spent gaining insight into teacher development from across the continent. In the past 8 years, we have delivered over 2 000 000 hours of digestible and actionable continuous professional development modules to 55 000 in-service educators across Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria. We believe in providing students with opportunities to explore concepts, make meaning, and transfer that knowledge to real-life situations. We consciously create space for students to make mistakes, learn from them, and continuously improve.

The most effective way to learn is by doing. Building practical components into every activity allows student-teachers to bridge the gap between theory and practice. A well-crafted lesson plan may look impressive on paper, but it may not always translate effectively into a classroom environment. That’s why we’ve designed our learning approach to facilitate hands-on experiences and practical, individualised feedback. For instance, our student-teachers are not only required to submit their lesson plans but also analyse them among their peers. Through structured peer feedback sessions, they receive guidance and support from their educators and classmates. This interactive process not only helps them identify and address the gaps in their lesson plans but also makes their learning experience more impactful. Once reviewed and improved they can see firsthand how their plans unfold in a simulated classroom environment, after which they once again review and reflect upon their experience.

A pedagogically sound learning approach is just the beginning; it’s the passionate, experienced team behind the program design and delivery that truly brings transformative education to life. Our program has been designed by a team with both theoretical strength and practical experience in South African classrooms. This exposure to diverse South African classrooms ensures that our students learn from professionals who understand the unique challenges and opportunities that come with teaching in this context.

Navigating New Beginnings and Embracing Fresh Insights

Implementing an effective distance teacher certification program is challenging anywhere in the world, but South Africa’s unique issues make it particularly difficult. Recurring load shedding and students scattered all across the country with differing connectivity issues and device limitations are all authentically South African challenges that have kept us on our toes and ensured that we remain true to our principle of adaptability. 

Not long after launching our program, Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse” began to resonate strongly with us: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” We quickly realized that no matter how careful and meticulous our planning may be, a reasonable level of flexibility would be key to success. In order to stay aligned with our learning approach and provide a holistic learning experience, we developed a blended model that combined independent online study with synchronous virtual sessions. Striking a balance between providing such a learning experience and affording students the opportunity to adequately manage competing responsibilities is a delicate process that we continue to refine and explore. 

There is also a psychological component at play; for example, though some sessions may be optional, students feel compelled to attend, risking burnout—particularly for those juggling full-time jobs and childcare responsibilities. We, therefore, set our sights on building in ‘practical’ components rather than focusing too heavily on synchronous sessions. By reducing the number of sessions, prioritising tutorials, and deliberate practice sessions where students could script lessons and share them with peers we adapted and adjusted to a model that’s proving to be a more effective and sustainable approach for our student-teachers. Although we are still refining the microteaching aspect of our programme, we strongly believe this is one area that sets us apart from other institutions. 

We have also assigned academic advisors to work closely with each student throughout the semester. This personalised approach allows us to better understand each student’s individual needs and challenges. Distance programs must be designed taking into consideration the broad needs of students, making it essential to remain agile and adaptable to provide the most effective and supportive educational experience. Our student life department has played a massive role in this, offering counselling services and hands-on support in areas such as time management, device challenges, and both online and on-campus study sessions. 

Ultimately, it’s crucial to stay attuned to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our South African student body. Our students are representative of the rich tapestry of South African society, each bringing their unique challenges and opportunities to the student experience. A PGCE program, in particular, sees a wide range of student profiles: some student-teachers work full-time, others are unemployed, some have children, and some are caregivers. Many are located outside of Gauteng and cannot access our on-campus facilities. To address these varying needs, faculty and student support teams need to collaborate in assisting student-teachers to find the right balance between their competing responsibilities as well as connecting them with the specific support they require.

A Strengthened Resolve

So far, the insights and lessons we’ve gathered have only served to reinforce our conviction that our approach can be an extremely effective way to train foundation phase educators. By emphasising practical elements of training, providing comprehensive student support, and digging into our deep understanding of the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our students, we are cultivating a learning environment that fosters growth and development.

Our focus on peer feedback and hands-on experience empowers students to continuously refine their skills, ensuring they are well-equipped to enter the classroom and leave a lasting, positive impact on their students’ lives. By merging theoretical knowledge with real-world experience, we are providing our students with the tools necessary to flourish as educators.

I am immensely proud of the progress we have made to date with our distance program. It represents more than just an academic endeavour; it’s an opportunity to transform the lives of our students and the children they will eventually teach. As we prepare to launch applications for our second cohort, a full-time, contact program, we are moving forward with a strengthened resolve. We eagerly anticipate continuing this journey, where we are not only teaching but also learning. Sharing these insights is both an honour and a responsibility that we will remain committed to, as we collectively strive to revolutionise the African education landscape.

To anyone reading this far, please follow up if you have any questions or wish to engage with us in any way. We are at the start of our journey and hope to be able to collaborate across the education ecosystem as we grow.