South Africa: A Fateful Decision

a fateful decisionJohannesburg | In South Africa, any discussion of education reform begins and ends with the acronym OBE. Those three letters stand for Outcome-Based Education, a system adopted by the government in 1996 in an attempt to reshape the country’s curriculum and approach to teaching. Thirteen years later, OBE continues to spark passionate debates among experts about the shape of education reform.

The government chose OBE as a new curriculum approach, a proactive policy shift aimed at addressing disparities in the education system caused by apartheid. OBE is an education philosophy that is organized around the idea that all students are capable of learning and achieving success. Under this system, the classroom is supposed to be more closely linked to the real world, and students are encouraged to adopt an analytic approach learning over rote memorization. Those who favor the system say that one of the key strengths of the OBE is its flexibility, with timetables that are less rigid and controlled. They also argue that the OBE system has accorded teachers and pupils the opportunity to deal with the curriculum from their own perspectives, creating an environment more conducive to creative thinking.

Critics, on the other hand, say that the South African government is clinging to OBE despite its failure elsewhere in the world. They assert that OBE principles are widely recognized to work best in small classes, but in South Africa classes often have at least 35 and sometimes 50 or more students. They also complain that teachers were not adequately trained to adapt to the new system. In their opinion, the government should ditch OBE immediately and begin to carve out its own education system, tailored to the needs of both its pupils and the country, in general.

Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, an academic and former anti-apartheid activist, is one of the most prominent critics, having argued that OBE is the worst education system ever used in the pre-and-post apartheid eras.

“We have chosen the worst curriculum policy that you could ever imagine. Canada tried it, and they dumped it. The UK, the Netherlands, and New Zealand tried it, and they dumped it. But not us,” Ramphele told an education symposium in Cape Town recently.

High Failure Rate at Schools

The OBE curriculum was first introduced to Grade 1 pupils in 1998, and subsequently to other grades over the following decade. In 2008, however, Grade 12 pupils became the first to take exams based on the new curriculum that was introduced in secondary schools just three years ago.

But only around 62 percent met the requirements for the new OBE National Senior Certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma.

“That is a high failure rate,” says Dr Vijay Reddy, head of the research program on education, science, and skills development at the Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC). “It raises concern that the new curriculum might be of too high a level for those with lower abilities,” Reddy said. The HSRC is South Africa’s research agency that conducts research in critical knowledge relative to all aspects of human and social development.

The success rate is even more worrying when one considers that only 20 percent of Grade 12 pupils achieved the minimum score required for entry into undergraduate study at university. Effectively, 80 percent of pupils who took the new exams did not qualify to continue their studies at university.

A group of math teachers were particularly alarmed by both the results in their field and the quality of the exams themselves. The Concerned Mathematics Educators (CME) released a scathing report in January that criticized the low standards of Grade 12 math exams. Overall, only 21 percent of the students scored above 50 percent in mathematics, while a mere 14.9 percent scored above 50 percent in physical science.

“If this standard is going to be used as a benchmark for future examinations, it will not adequately prepare young learners to study mathematics-related courses such as engineering, architecture, and business science at tertiary institutions,” CME said in a statement. The group said the type of questioning was unchallenging for talented and competent learners and was not adequate to prepare pupils to study mathematics-related courses at university level – undermining the government’s declared aim of producing more graduates in these fields.

Legacy of Apartheid Education Remains

Introduced in the 1950s, the apartheid education system promoted race and ethnic divisions, and separateness over common citizenship and nationhood. Separate schools existed for whites and blacks, with the former enjoying more funding, higher-quality teachers, and, overall, more resources and support materials. Black schools were the opposite, lacking resources and sufficiently trained educators. As a result, wide-scale disparities emerged within the country’s education system, and large numbers of black pupils were excluded from mainstream education.

Some critics of OBE say that it only further entrenches such inequality in South African schools, arguing that the system is more beneficial to wealthier schools with smaller classes. At the same time, poorer, under-resourced schools continue to fall farther behind. While 20 percent of the national government budget is allocated to education, black schools, especially those based in rural and township areas, still suffer from poor infrastructure and lack of teaching aids.

Reddy from the Human Sciences Research Council said education resources need to be targeted at such schools: “The challenge for the department [of education] is to see that poor schools’ results improve.”

Education specialist Jonathan Jansen says the current education system continues to benefit better resourced schools and children who come from upper-class families. “Nothing has changed except the complexion of the upper classes. Patterns of achievement after apartheid mirror perfectly patterns of achievement under apartheid,” he notes.

Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive officer of the South African Institute of Race Relations, agrees. “We are breeding a generation that doesn’t have a stake in a successful society. OBE is a great system which, unfortunately, only works well at well-off schools.”

The Next Step

However, what to do next remains disputed. Ramphele has vowed to mobilize civil society to protest against the continued use of OBE by the South African government. “I am prepared to march to parliament. We must do away with outcomes-based education. It has failed our children,” she said at a Centre for Conflict Resolution seminar on African National Congress (ANC, South Africa’s governing party) economic policy.

However, Sipho Nkosi, the provincial secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union in Kwazulu-Natal province, said her organization supports OBE because it is better than the apartheid-era education system. “As difficult as it may be, it would not make sense to do away with it,” she said.

Responding to calls to abandon the OBE system, Duncan Hindle, the director-general of education in the Department of Education, said that from time to time every education system requires a detailed review and possible solutions. “I can say that in principle every system and decision would be up for review if required,” Hindle said, responding to Ramphele’s comments that OBE has failed the nation.

Zweli Mkhize, head of the subcommittee on education for the ANC, also said in a recent interview with SABC radio that the ruling party was open to discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the system and was in the process of putting together a team of experts to look at the challenges facing OBE. However, he said the government would not replace the current system.

Inordinately High Dropout Rates

Ramphele and others say one of the solutions to the country’s education woes is to reduce the inordinately high dropout rates at primary and secondary schools. A local think tank, the South African Institute of Race Relations, has also expressed concern about the high dropout rate, especially at poor black schools. It says of the 920,716 pupils in Grade 11 in 2007, only 64 percent went on to take their senior certificate examinations in 2008.

The ANC government has been criticized by education experts for being solely obsessed with senior certificate examination results as a hallmark of achievement rather than improving the quality of education at all levels. Although year-end examinations are taken in the lower grades, the ineffectiveness of the system is exposed when pupils graduate from Grade 12.

“The quality of education is the chief factor here, which is tested at Grade 12. The problem lies in what happens between grades one to 11. When you don’t prepare people properly in the lower grades, you won’t get good results,” says Cronje from the Institute of Race Relations.

Education Minister Naledi Pandor vowed recently to improve the situation. “… Despite the encouraging evidence of schools that are working to increase success, there are many schools that persistently under-perform. We must act firmly against under-performance. Schools must be placed under the supervision of a recovery task team and be assisted with teacher development and learning improvement,” Pandor said, upon the release of the 2008 National Senior Certificate examination results.

In addition, in an attempt to ease the financial burden for poor families and cut into the dropout rate, the government has increased the number of schools that are subsidized to allow a free education. During a speech that introduced the government’s 2009 budget, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said that education remains the government’s largest spending and investment priority, having grown by 14 percent annually over the past few years. The Department of Education has been allocated R21.2 billion for the 2009/10 fiscal year, about $2.3 billion.

“The government’s contribution to public education remains our single largest investment, because we know that it is the key to reducing poverty and accelerating long-term economic growth. Key priorities in education include extending the no-fee schools policy to 60 percent of schools, from 40 percent at present, expanding the school nutrition program, and reducing average class sizes in schools serving low-income communities,” he said.

A Shrinking Pool of Educators

Reducing class sizes will be particularly tough considering the fact that universities are not able to produce enough teachers to keep pace with the thousands that are leaving the profession, say experts. According to the Department of Education, universities currently produce between 6,000-10,000 teachers a year, while the profession is shedding 18,000 teachers over the same period of time, with some 4,000 of those emigrating annually. Many of the most highly skilled educators are taking up posts overseas, especially in the United Kingdom and Australia. The Cape Professional Teacher’s Association estimates an even larger exodus of around 20,000 teachers per year.

Critics have also accused universities of focusing on the high end of teaching and on upgrading teacher qualifications at the postgraduate level instead of focusing on training new teachers.

A national survey of more than 21,000 teachers conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2007 revealed that 55 percent had considered leaving the education profession “due to inadequate remuneration, increased workload, lack of career development, professional recognition, dissatisfaction with work policies, [and] job insecurity.” The study further reported that two-thirds of those who were considering alternative lines of work were in understaffed fields such as technology, natural sciences, economics, and management. Their reasons included low job satisfaction, job stress, and violence in schools.

In response to teacher shortages, some have called for the re-instatement of teacher training colleges, which had been created under the apartheid regime, primarily to train primary school teachers. The Department of Education decided to close them in the 1990s, saying the colleges were “dysfunctional”, training too many teachers in a fragmented and un-coordinated manner, and too expensive for provinces to run at sustainable levels. Between 1994 and 1998 the number of such schools was cut from 150 to 50, and the education faculties of universities took over the remaining ones. In 2007, the ANC called for the re-opening of the now-defunct teacher training colleges to address the teacher shortages in the country. However, the government has not yet followed through with the idea.

For now, the future of the majority of South Africa’s students looks bleak. Most of those who failed the National Senior Certificate in 2008 are highly unlikely to find a job, adding to the more than 60 percent unemployment rate among the country’s 18-to-35-year-old age group.

“The single most important legacy of OBE is another lost generation in South Africa’s poorest schools,” says Cornia Pretorius, an associate editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper’s education unit, who has covered the topic since 1995. “These are the children who still cannot read, write, and do math – the all-important keys that are critical to unlocking the door in acquiring knowledge.”




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