Is this a new curriculum I see before me?

| September 21, 2010
By Jane Hofmeyr

The media have been awash with official statements and commentators’ opinions on the curriculum changes announced by Minister Motshekga.


While most of the hype has declared that outcomes-based education (OBE) is dead and the country will get a totally new curriculum, this has been disputed by other educationists, resulting in mixed messages and considerable public confusion.
To obtain the latest information, I consulted my expert colleagues in and outside of government. To understand what is really happening, we need to remind ourselves about the origins of OBE, and why it became the basis of our education and training system.

The beginning

In the 1990s there was a drive by trade unions, supported by business, to link the separate worlds of training and education, so that adult learners transferring from one to the other would had the knowledge, skills and qualifications that they had mastered in the world of work recognised. This was supported by the sound educational
philosophy of shifting the focus away from what teachers were required to teach, to what the child is required to understand and be able to do, after the teaching has taken place, i.e. the learning outcomes.
The result was the creation of a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) in 1995 as a ladder of qualifications linking the training and education systems, to enable the outcomes or standards of competence achieved in all learning programmes to be registered at the appropriate level and, in 1998, the country’s first OBE school
curriculum, the original Curriculum 2005 came into effect.

The death of Curriculum 2005

Curriculum 2005 died in its radical form of ‘transformational’ outcomes when it was reviewed, at Minister Asmal’s insistence, in 2001. It was found to be problematic in both its approach and implementation: it concentrated too much on skills and the processes of learning, without sufficient specification of content and knowledge.

Unfortunately, because there was some ideological resistance to a thorough-going revision, this imbalance was not sufficiently redressed and the content remained under-specified. The Revised National Curriculum Statements (RNCS) of 2003 were in general a huge improvement, producing a relevant and more challenging  curriculum, which focuses explicitly on exposing learners to higher-order thinking skills essential for effective national development and competitiveness in the global economy of the 21st century.

What are the problems with the RNCS?

The problems lie not so much with the underlying philosophy of OBE, but in the level of disciplinary and pedagogical understanding that the RNCS requires, and its implementation and assessment.
The crux of the matter is that there is a mismatch between the demands of RNCS and the capacity of the teaching corps as a whole. This has led to a proliferation of policy documents from national, provincial and even district departments trying to make it more understandable for the average, poorly trained South African teacher with
limited subject knowledge – a legacy of apartheid and the uneven quality of teacher education today. The OBE terminology was also found to be too sophisticated and unfamiliar for most teachers.
To compound matters, the RNCS was implemented without enough targeted teacher training that was subject-specific or enough resources for teachers and learners in most schools. In addition, it over-emphasises assessment and associated administration, and so overloads teachers with tasks that are not related to their teaching.

What changes can we expect?

For years now, ‘the OBE curriculum’ has been accused by many as being the main cause of all the problems in the South African education system. Although this
is far too simplistic an argument that fails to come to grips with the fundamental reasons for the education crisis, OBE became the scapegoat, producing mounting public pressure to get rid of it.

With all its political baggage, the government has decided that the term ‘OBE’ will be scrapped in the revision of the RNCS. The ANC, however, has clarified that “…outcomes-based education as a broad framework for education and training in South Africa remains our approach and… the core values of outcomes-based education, such as encouraging critical engagement with knowledge instead of rote learning” (SAPA, 07/07/2010).

The key change is that the curriculum will no longer be framed in terms of learning outcomes and assessment standards, so as to strengthen content specification. To make it more accessible to teachers, the curriculum will be repackaged: every subject in each grade will have a single, comprehensive, concise Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) that will provide details on what teachers ought to teach and assess. In this way, outcomes will be absorbed into more accessible aims, and content will be specified in subject topics and the assessments to be covered per term. The terminology will thus be familiar – aims, topics and subjects –
and the burdensome assessment load has already been reduced.

Recognising the previous implementation problems, an expert Ministerial Committee is working on the development of textbooks and learning and teaching support materials, including learner workbooks. Teachers will receive targeted subject-specific training, especially in Numeracy/Mathematics and Literacy/English. The public will be consulted on all the policy changes, which will be clearly and regularly communicated to schools.

To bring about the essential improvement in pupil achievement, the Minister has also announced a comprehensive programme: Action Plan 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025. This is all very positive news, and the Minister and DBE are to be congratulated for the decisive steps they have taken to produce a repackaged, more accessible and structured curriculum and good implementation strategies. A danger, however, is that quality and effectiveness may be sacrificed in the
haste to deliver all the products of their labours.

How will this affect independent schools?

The CAPS have not been released for public comment yet, but first-rate teams are working on them and, as in the 2002/3 curriculum review, many of the best subject teachers in ISASA schools are working on the subject reference groups as critical readers in the revision process.

Although OBE changed the paradigm of the national curriculum, in many ways our schools have been less affected by curriculum changes than public schools. Central to the independence of our schools is the freedom to choose the content, pace, sequencing, methods and assessment of their curricula, provided they meet the national outcome standards. They have the ‘space’ to be different and offer real choice to parents.

Good teachers in public and independent schools have always taught with both the knowledge and skills that they wanted their pupils to learn uppermost in their minds. They should not be straight-jacketed by the curriculum, but be able to use it as a base for designing learning opportunities for their pupils. The greater specification in the
CAPS may mean prescription of content, pace, sequencing and assessment, and carries the danger that strict adherence will be required of independent schools and public schools.

Schools will be monitored more closely in the future and our schools, especially the subsidised ones writing the state examinations, may be vulnerable to misplaced intrusion by provincial and district officials into their essential curricular and assessment ‘space’. Annual national assessment tests (ANAs) are planned for grades 3, 6
and 9, and it is not clear yet whether these will be written in independent schools. They will test core mathematical and language skills, not subject knowledge, but even they pose a serious threat to independent schools like the Waldorf ones that offer an alternative educational approach which does not believe in formally testing children  until Grade 4. Grade 3 ANAs will thus be problematic for them.

So is this a new curriculum and is OBE dead?

To use a typical South African expression: “Ja, nee”. No, it is not a radically new curriculum, because in its new form there is both change and continuity. As Mike Myburgh, CEO of NAPTOSA, has informed its members: “…Please note that this is not a new curriculum. It is an improved, more user-friendly version of the existing curriculum.”

OBE may be dead politically, but as a learner-centred paradigm that makes learner outcomes a vital consideration and underpins our whole education and training system, it is still alive. The CAPS will put more emphasis on teaching the basic knowledge and skills, but we will never go back to the authoritarian, teacher dominated content-based curriculum that I endured when I was at school.

An improved, user-friendly curriculum, however, will not solve all our quality problems. In the end, they depend on the competence, commitment and professionalism of our teaching force. This will involve improving teachers’ subject knowledge, professional skills and competence in English, as the main medium of instruction, and new system of accountability. As Mike Rice wrote in Business Day (2010/07/14):

Unless teachers are committed and disciplined professionals who take their authority seriously, little can be achieved… Unless and until the core issues of professional ethics and discipline are addressed, we cannot hope to see SA ’s dismal educational performance improve.

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