Education, development and support for multigrade teachers

Multigrade teaching – the teaching of more than one grade of pupils in one class by one teacher – is a feature of education systems the world over. It dates back to the origins of formal education, and it was not up until the late 1800s that the teaching of one grade in a classroom (monograde) at a time became prominent. Despite this development, multigrade teaching remains a reality and, for some learners, especially in developing countries, is the only way they can access education, write TSAKANI CHAKA and EVERARD WEBER.



In South Africa about a quarter of our schools are multigrade or have multigrade classes, according to an analysis of Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) data for 2005-2007, and later 2011 data.


This article discusses the situation in relation to multigrade teacher education, development and support, linking to the key competencies of multigrade teaching. It draws on six school case studies conducted in the North-West Province, including interviews with departmental officials and elected higher education institutions.

It also makes recommendations on how the issue of multigrade teacher education, development and support should be addressed in South Africa.

Multigrade teacher education, development and support


While the multigrade teachers at the participating schools met the requirements of qualified teachers in line with the South African National Framework for Teacher Education and Training, none of them were trained in multigrade teaching. Current teacher training focuses on training teachers to teach in phases.

District support for multigrade teachers is also not multigrade specific because district officials themselves have not had any training in multigrade education. Principals, who are supposed to be teaching as well, also do not have the academic wherewithal for supporting multigrade teachers. Even teacher development workshops are geared towards monograde schools and do not take into account the existence and special circumstances of multigrade schools. Further, multigrade teachers tend to be isolated as their schools are in remote rural areas.  

A look at current teacher training practices revealed that there are certain institutions that are beginning to act in terms of preparing multigrade teachers. One such effort was found at the Centre for Multigrade Education (CMGE) at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy.  

The centre offers programmes on multigrade teaching, starting from Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE), going up to doctoral levels, and draws students from the Southern African region. Another example is the University of Venda, which incorporates certain multigrade aspects into the teacher training programmes.  

These efforts are encouraging. What is of concern, however, is that, with the exception of the CMGE, these efforts are not institutionalised, thereby dependent on the passion and interest of current trainers. Further, the reach of these efforts is restricted.  

Lack of specific training and support to multigrade teachers has a bearing on their teaching practices, and the discussion on the key competencies points to this fact.  

Key competencies

The literature suggests that key competencies multigrade teachers require in order to be effective include: curriculum adaptation and planning, learner organisational and teaching strategies, and assessment. Data was gathered in the six schools in relation to these competencies.

Curriculum adaptation and planning

Curriculum adaptation allows for the national curriculum to be adapted to local multigrade settings. It could be done in several ways. The first is through multi-year curriculum spans that cover two to three grades. In this case, learners work through common topics and activities.


The second is a differentiated curriculum, which allows all learners to deal with general topics or themes, but differentiates learning tasks in terms of level of learning of learners.


The third is quasi-monograded, which essentially mimics what happens in a monograde school with the multigrade teacher teaching each grade separately. Subjects for the different grades do not necessarily need to be the same. Further, time may be allocated equally or unequally across the grades depending on the teacher’s judgment.


The last is learner- and materials-centred strategies in which the curriculum is translated into self-study graded learning guides, and learners work through these at their own pace with support from the teacher, followed by  structured assessment. None of the teachers in the participating schools reported adapting the existing monograde curriculum to the circumstances pertaining to multigrade settings. Without training and encouragement, multigrade teachers are not able to take the opportunity provided within the curriculum for adaption. Lesson planning also followed a monograde-orientation in accordance with departmental requirements. There were certain cases where there were no lesson plans, negatively impacting teaching quality in one of the cases.

Learner organisational and teaching strategies

While there are some teachers who are innovative in teaching strategies and employed learner grouping methods and some level of whole-class teaching combined with differentiation of activities based on the grade, others followed the quasi-monograde strategy.


Teachers did not employ peer tutoring – a strategy that could allow teachers to draw on learners in higher grades as resources for teaching those in lower grades.


Only in one instance was peer tutoring observed during the study. This was an initiative on the part of learners who were attempting to understand the teacher’s instructions. Peer tutoring is beneficial not only to those being tutored, but also to those who are tutoring, in that as they explain to others they reinforce their own understandings. Peer tutoring also encourages learners to collaborate with one another.


Multigrade teachers think of the purpose of assessment as determining learners’ understanding of the content taught and determining academic progress at the beginning and during the year. Assessment practices point to a shift towards continuous or formative assessment. Continuous assessment is more consistent with multigrade teaching in that it is assessment aimed at better learning, as opposed to assessment used to determine promotion from one grade to another.

We found that teachers applied various assessment forms, including tests, assignments, class work, homework, orals, research and demonstrations. Some teachers tended to give irregular assessment and fewer tasks than planned. Various reasons were given for this, such as the burdensome nature of recording grades.

We also came across incidences of learners’ work that was unmarked. A principal at one of the schools, who was also a teacher, said that giving homework to the learners in her class and then assessing their work was almost impossible due to the countless meetings she had to attend.

A teacher pointed out that not all learners completed their homework. The reason was parental negligence and unwillingness to assist with homework and research activities.

Although learner assessment was reported at two of the schools, assessment at the participating schools tended to be teacher-dominated. We did not observe any learner self-assessment.

One teacher was not enthusiastic about involving learners in assessing their own work because she said some of them could not be relied on as they would mark themselves correct even when wrong.


Requirements relating to the amount of assessment and recording need to be revisited. Teacher in-service training should seek to reinforce assessment practices, as well as encourage adoption of assessment practices that are compatible with multigrade teaching. There is also a need for the Department of Basic Education to provide administrative assistance and also to provide guidelines for a basic minimum number of teachers for each multigrade school.


The challenges faced by multigrade teachers could be avoided with provision of specific multigrade training and support. An immediate step to be taken should be to provide in-service training to teachers on various aspects of multigrade teaching competencies, including curriculum adaptation, classroom organisation, teaching strategies, and learner assessment. District officials should also be trained, especially in regard to the support they can provide teachers. Accompanying this training should be the distribution of multigrade teachers’ handbooks to which multigrade teachers could refer whenever necessary.


The Department of Higher Education and Training needs to ensure that multigrade teaching competencies are incorporated into pre-service programmes, and that the subject is examinable. Dealing with the issue at pre-service level is more cost-effective than doing so at in-service level. Prospective teachers could be required to do their teaching practice in at least one multigrade school as part of their pre-service training to ensure exposure to such contexts. On a broader level, pre-service teacher training should seek to orientate prospective teachers on the different types of schools, that is, monograde/multigrade, rural/urban, and so forth, as well as the educational implications of working in different contexts. Efforts already undertaken by teacher training institutions need to be acknowledged, embraced and harnessed as part of the way forward in relation to the training and support of multigrade teachers.


Authors: Tsakani Chaka, Centre for Education Policy Development, Johannesburg; Everard Weber, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.