South Africa: Sue Lunnon

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Sue Lunnon Of BHC School Of Design

Sue Lunnon, Registrar At BHC School Of Design In Cape Town, Talks To Jim Playfoot About Educational Cultures And The Challenges Of Being A Teacher In South Africa

Sue Lunnon began her career in education reluctantly. Before she took the decision, on the advice of her father, to begin a teaching qualification, she had quite unambiguous feelings towards the profession. "I would have rather cleaned public toilets than teach". Her experiences at the coal face of education have changed her outlook somewhat. "Now after 30 years of teaching, I'm a teacher in every cell of my being". As registrar of the BHC School of Design, a private education company producing, in their own words, "highly competent interior design professionals", she has had a front row seat during the recent, and profound, changes in the South African education system. Reform has, she feels, had mixed success. She praises the new curriculum introduced in 2005 as being positive, particularly for arts subjects, and for allowing teachers to be "...more hands on and twist and tweak things". She also saw great value in the creation of the Sector Education Training Authorities (SETAs) as a means to connect education and employment. However, despite being squarely behind the regulatory process, she feels reforms have not had the impact they should have had. "The concept was very sound, it was the implementation that failed." And she concludes "I still feel hurt when I hear people say that standards have dropped." The success of BHC - which she demonstrates by presenting a series of glowing references from employers who have snapped up BHC graduates - shows how best practice in vocational education is often found in smaller educational institutions. Generally, however, mainstream vocational education suffers the dual problems of having low status (particularly in comparison to more 'academic' study) and being too theoretical with not enough connection with industry.


The Culture Of Learning

The relative success of the BHC School is something we explore further. What is it about their approach that seems to produce high quality, work-ready graduates? Sue is in no doubt that the close relationship the School has to industry lies at the heart of this. It allows them to focus not only on specific domain skills but also on the wider behaviours that individuals will need to take into the workplace. "Candidates need to understand the world of work" she says. In a fiercely competitive sector like interior design, where interpersonal skills are key, having the right attitude can be the difference between candidates going for the same job. As part of this, Sue pinpoints self-discipline as key. "We have to focus on discipline and trust - lack of self-discipline has increased in South Africa in recent years. This needs to be addressed."

One of the solutions to this issue of behaviour and discipline is to look towards the culture within the classroom. Interestingly, learners who enter the School directly after high school are in the minority. The average age of students at BHC is 22 with many paying their way through their education by working. As such they have greater personal motivation and this can spread to the younger intake. "We need a culture of role models in the classroom. This creates a culture of respect and sharing". The role of the teacher is also vital in creating this culture of professional discipline. By employing teachers and lecturers who have significant industry experience, the students are more likely to listen and learn. "Relevance instils respect for the educator".


The Challenges Of Teaching

The teacher is central to any discussion of improving standards. Sue mourns the loss of the 'school master' concept where the teacher was a respected figure in the community. Now, the status of teaching as a profession is pitifully low. "In South Africa being a teacher, policeman or nurse is often considered a job for losers." There is a sense that becoming a teacher is an option of last resort. This has seen the training and recruitment of too many bad teachers which, in itself, creates a demoralised profession. "People's memory of bad experiences with schooling overshadows the good work of many teachers". With pay being so low in comparison to other professions, and the job itself being rather thankless, "the teaching profession often loses its best members to other industries." Sue believes the solution is clear (although not easily achievable). "You need to motivate teachers through better pay and improved working environments, allowing them to concentrate on teaching through removing other responsibilities."

Supporting teachers is also a vital - but often missing - piece of the puzzle. At BHC, a first year teacher is always given support, in the form of a teaching assistant, to allow them to find their feet. Sue talks about the need for teachers to have role models and mentors so that they themselves can effectively perform the same function to their students. She also talks about "subject didactics". She explains: "Many of the best teachers are those who come back into teaching with professional experience. They are then able to understand their subject matter better."

Turning to higher education, she highlights that the requirement for educators to develop a research profile detracts from the main function. "How" she asks "can educators in vocational fields be involved in both the world of work and research and still teach?" Without a re-evaluation of the role of the teacher and of how they are supported, education at every level will struggle to meet the challenge.


The Future For South Africa

We finish by reflecting on the road ahead. There are, she says, many deep societal problems that need to be addressed alongside the more specific challenges of education: "Crime is a huge problem and this is linked with unemployment. Young people turn to crime because their expectations in life are beyond their legal, financial means. The Aids situation is another shackle."

She continues to fight for the changes she believes will improve education. "A successful education system is one that has the ability to adapt. It is using knowledge not just showing knowledge that is important".

She concludes on an upbeat note: "Mankind has the capacity to reinvent itself. And you can find little pockets of miracles across South Africa".