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Assessment as enlargement of the mind – the Independent Examinations Board turns 25

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

On 3 September 2014, the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) celebrated 25 years of operation in southern Africa, reports the organisation’s chief executive officer, Anne Oberholzer.

It is fitting to share the inspirational words of the chairperson of the IEB, Professor Crain Soudien,1 at this event with Independent Education readers.

After the official welcome Soudien set about addressing the question of what the IEB is, saying:

“The IEB was started by a small handful of educators who saw the need for the establishment of a non-racial assessment structure in the late 1980s. At the time, schools that wrote the Joint Matriculation Examination were being forced to make their children sit for racialised examinations.

“The brand new IEB had the support of progressive organisations in the religious sector, the civic movement, trade unions and political structures. The IEB created curricula and pedagogical approaches which significantly assisted the many independent schools that were part of the movement behind it, to develop new and innovative ways to deal with the challenges of teaching and learning in a democracy.

The first 10 tumultuous years

“This first phase of our existence were tumultuous years. Immensely important contributions came out of the IEB that informed the national policy platform in the new democracy. I remember the innovative projects that took root in the schools, in the trade union movement – the emergence of a formalised assessment structure for adults in industry – and in progressive organisations that were interested in providing education and examinations for people who were denied by the apartheid system. But they were also financially extremely difficult years. The IEB teetered on the brink of financial collapse.

“The challenge that presented itself was whether an organisation which had essentially been born in the dynamics of the struggle years could also become financially sustainable.

A successful transition

“It is this achievement that we are asking you to share with us. To be where we are today, is no miracle. It is due to the sustained effort of our colleagues – the staff and board of the IEB. The constant support of schools, businesses and trade has enabled the IEB to make a successful transition into its current position as a respected participant in the educational conversations of our country.

A sense of self-awareness

“But being in such a congenial space is one thing. What we have been able to achieve in our core business is what we really need to emphasise. We believe that we have something to give the country as an assessment agency. We are confident not because, as some say, we are historically privileged, or because we are seen to be, in a country that struggles with these racial questions, white. Our confidence, I would like to think, comes from our sense of self-awareness. “Let me talk about this self-awareness. I talk to it because I think it, or the lack of it, is at the heart of many of the difficulties we are experiencing in our country at the moment. Our confidence arises from our awareness that we are, first and foremost, an assessment agency. We don’t see ourselves as anything else. But we do realise how political assessment is and so we deliberately have been cultivating the capacity to try to understand where and how we fit into the South African landscape. We are often in agony over how we should be projecting ourselves.

“Because we wish to take nothing for granted, in some ways, we have come to the repeated realisation that we should project ourselves around what our strengths are. This projection is about saying that we take our raison d’être – the reason for our being – from the very particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. We are here at the foot of Africa in a country that has gone through more than three hundred years of privileging some above others, suspicion, marginalisation, exclusion and oppression. And we must ask the question directly: how does one manage the process of assessment in an environment where respect and dignity have been in such short supply? And it is in answer to this difficult question that I think we have been dedicating our expertise in the last 25 years.

Confronting conditions

“I think we have developed insights and understandings that have enabled us to enter the spectrum of the conditions that confront us in this country – rich and poor, monolingual and multilingual, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, white and black – and have presented ourselves as people who are interested in finding ways of assessing that bring out the best of who we are. We try to make the point that critical thinking is not an attribute of the privileged – all people have the capacity to think critically.

“I deliberately raise this to emphasise how embedded we are in the landscape of South Africa. We are not South African nationalists. However we acknowledge and embrace the fact that we are here and unconditionally so as members of this society. We wouldn’t want it any other way. We see it as a space and a time of opportunity.

Igniting potential and capacity

“That opportunity is about coming to understand how we facilitate learning in the most bewildering of social circumstances, the circumstances of cultural difference, language difference, class difference, geographical difference. How do you take an isiXhosa speaking child of six and ignite in that child the extraordinary wonder of his or her own imagination, because, I regret to say, much of that child’s education is going to stifle his or her imagination? It is going to cloister it in the limits of his or her class, race, gender, language and locality. How do you take a child who dreams in isiXhosa and come to empathise with that child, to the extent of revelling with him or her in the magic of his or her symbolic world and then, simultaneously and deliberately, in the poems and texts that you ask the child to read, open up to that child the equal – not better – beauty of the folktales of another country? As much as the isibongi (Xhosa praise poetry) is an object of admiration, so too must be Byron and Keats. These are immensely difficult questions in a society which struggles with the question of igniting potential and capacity. “I think we as the IEB have assembled the personnel and leadership at board level, and have begun to develop the practices to be able to say that we have some understanding of and think we have something to offer about how we might operate in that space. We are, through our assessment approaches, beginning to model an approach which is South African and powerfully so. We offer, through the approaches and the practices we are evolving, some sense of where we go with the kind of learning that sets up a child for the rest of his or her life.

Opening up

“Nelson Mandela came to an important insight once after listening to the great isiXhosa poet Krune Mqhayi at Healdtown, where he was at high school.2 Bedazzled as he was by Mqhayi’s invocation to his Xhosa ancestors, Mandela, after a while, asked himself: But am I just a Xhosa? Am I not also an African? And later, he would question even this sequestration of his identity around a narrow-minded idea of who he was. He came to that insight without much guidance. But he was exceptional. The rest of us stay fixed in our cages of bedazzlement. “It is this opening up in which we as an organisation are participating. We are saying assessment can be about the enlargement of the mind. We, as the IEB, are deeply privileged to be in this space and feel honoured to be able to do this work.”

1. See:
2. See, for example:,%20Tom%20-%20Mandela,%20A%20Critical%20Life%20%28Oxford,%202006%29.pdf.

Category: Autumn 2015

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