Schools in South Africa face a teacher crisis

 ·1 Dec 2022

New research from Stellenbosch University’s Research on Socioeconomic Policy Unit (RESEP) shows that almost half of publicly-employed teachers (49%) are aged 50+ in 2021, pointing to an approaching wave of teacher retirements.

“Teachers can retire from age 55, and in most circumstances have to retire by age 60 – though in some circumstances a limited number are allowed to remain in teaching until age 65. Altogether, 49% of teachers are 50 years or older, and 25% at least 55 years old. Thus a large retirement wave is inevitable,” the researchers said.

Retirements and other forms of departure from the public teaching sector will rise strongly in the age group 55 and above. In 2013, just over 7,800 public sector educators aged 55+ had left in the previous year, a number that rose to just under 12,500 in 2021.

Projections beyond 2021 of these numbers used the 2021 age distribution and past patterns of attrition from whatever cause. These projections indicate that leavers in this age group will peak at around 2029, at almost 17,300, after more than doubling since 2013.

After 2030, the number will again decline back to about 8,700 in 2040, the group said.


Another worrying trend the researchers found is that around half of the teachers leaving public teaching each year are below the initial official retirement age of 55 – meaning many are leaving for reasons other than retirement.

RESEP noted that attrition before qualifying for retirement is affected by many factors, such as:

  • Many women leave the labour market when starting a family;
  • Financially attractive options for teaching abroad;
  • Moving to private schools or into School Governing Body (SGB) posts;
  • Availability of alternative jobs outside of teaching;
  • Frustration with a teaching job.

“It is difficult to project how such attrition would evolve in future – factors such as the state of the economy and consequent demand for more skilled workers in other fields, or the growth of private schools, are difficult to predict,” the researchers said.

However, using the group’s modelling, the researchers project that attrition numbers are projected to grow less in the younger age groups than for potential retirees, with the share of leavers 55 and older set to rise slightly from 49% in 2022 to 55% in 2031, before declining sharply thereafter.

The researchers said that all modelling and projections have a degree of uncertainty, but the overall picture is clear – South Africa does not have enough teachers, and the problem is only going to get worse unless interventions are implemented now.

“The country has already entered a period in which many more teachers are required than had been the case in the past, simply to fill previous positions,” the researchers said.

“In addition, the number of learners in schools is still growing, in part because of reduced dropout and greater flows to Grade 12. This further expands the need for more teachers. Moreover, to improve the learner-educator ratio at least back to the levels that applied in 2011 would require even more additional teachers,” they said.

To combat the coming wave of retirement and the attrition patterns of younger teachers, the researchers said that South Africa would have to graduate between 6,000 and 13,000 additional teachers each year by 2030.

The good news is that South Africa’s universities appear equipped to do this, RESEP said.

“The success universities have achieved in increasing graduate output in recent years makes the situation less worrying than if universities had not achieved this,” it said.

“To illustrate, in 2020, universities added around 28,000 teachers to the country’s stock of teachers. Over ten years, this would be a total output of 280,000. This should be seen against a current total stock of publicly paid educators of around 400,000.

“Even if graduates not entering public service are taken into account, the outputs of universities are on a sound trajectory and should be able to deal with a demand for a larger teacher workforce.”

Nevertheless, depending on what objectives are chased in public schooling – i.e., keeping the current learner-educator ratio constant or improving it – South Africa’s teacher additions need to increase from around 25,000 a year to between 32,000 and 42,000 a year, the researchers said.

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