Curriculum battle heats up

Philippa Garson

class struggle

It would appear that the battle for the soul of the country’s curriculum is far from over. When Minister of Education Kader Asmal took the decision to subject the African National Congress’s flagship education policy, Curriculum 2005, to independent scrutiny in February this year by appointing a review committee to look into it, he stepped into that vulnerable space called political incorrectness. That space rapidly turned into a hot seat when the committee suggested the virtual scrapping of Curriculum 2005 and the phasing in of a far simpler and more content-heavy version of outcomes-based education.

Just as anyone with a shred of integrity would have done, Asmal faced the unpleasant truth of Curriculum 2005’s disastrous effect on our education system by appointing the committee in the first place and by seeing the sense in its recommendations, which were informed by a wealth of research.

In doing so, however, he has not made himself very popular with the hacks out there who seem to shroud Curriculum 2005 in the same godly aura as the National Party did not so long ago with Christian National Education – simply because it was party policy.

When he took the recommendations of the review to a Cabinet committee meeting last month, Asmal was met with some outspoken opposition from more than one Cabinet minister to the perceived “dumping” of the much-lauded Curriculum 2005 or at least to the way he had gone about the process – telling the media about it first.

Apparently Minister of Labour Membathisi Mdladlana, former firebrand of the mighty South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, was one of them.

There was also some unhappiness expressed at Asmal’s decision to bring the chair of the review committee, Linda Chisholm, into the education department, to oversee the proposed changes to curriculum implementation.

Although her position as a deputy director is being funded by Billiton, questions were apparently raised about whether she – as someone who presided over a critical process of independent review – was suitable to then spearhead the implementation of the government’s policy.

Now all this will be discussed further at a two-hour Cabinet debate scheduled for July 18. Chisholm said that, as far as she knew, her contract was being drawn up and her job would begin on August 1. She also said it came as no surprise that aspects of the policy change were being contested. More contestation no doubt lay ahead, she said.

However, it is clear that those who don’t particularly like Asmal are relishing their new-found opportunity to turn up the heat. All of this is par for the course in politics, of course. Asmal has, in the past, seldom resisted the opportunity to tear other ministers’ policies to pieces, when he has seen fit.

Policy changes are often preceded by argument and contestation. And no one seems to doubt that the phasing out of Curriculum 2005 and phasing in of the new version, Curriculum 21, will go ahead.

To make yet another about-turn at this point would be to render our education system a bad joke. In this light, Asmal’s decision to go public with the review may have been a shrewd move. What he didn’t bargain for is the crude treatment it would receive in sections of the press ignorant of the distinction between the broad principles of outcomes-based education and Curriculum 2005.

Could Asmal have gone about things differently? He has skilfully managed to bring his own bureaucrats – many who laboured for months on implementing Curriculum 2005 and don’t always take kindly to his somewhat “bullying” style – into a straggly line behind him.

Although some provincial officials, particularly in the Western Cape and Gauteng, are a bit peeved, he appears to have won the broad support of all provincial MECs.

But the truth is, many in the Cabinet are less than charmed by his love affair with the media and his popularity among some prominent members of the opposition. It can’t have helped his cause that Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon praised Asmal recently, suggesting President Thabo Mbeki could learn a thing or two from him, or that Sunday Times columnist Stephen Mulholland lauded Asmal, albeit incorrectly, for “[having] the balls to dump OBE [outcomes-based education], a ruinously expensive, left- wing education fad”.

The policy about-turn has given many the opportunity to denigrate former education minister Sibusiso Bengu, who presided over the much-maligned implementation of Curriculum 2005. This must make party loyalists choke.

Some criticise Asmal for arrogantly ignoring ANC structures in getting on with the business of education delivery. It would be interesting to be an observer at the ANC’s general council meeting next week when the curriculum debacle will be the subject of further debate.

What does all this mean for the poor children out there just trying to get an education? Hopefully nothing much. The sooner a more reasonable and less jargon- packed version of outcomes-based education is phased in, the less impact crude political agendas will have on the quality of education they receive.

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