The changing business of education

The government’s idea of transforming education amounts to little more than privatisation


Russell Bell

Outcomes Based Education (OBE) was introduced as part of a major curriculum change in schools three years ago and has been met with widespread criticism from parents, teachers and academics.

OBE should not be seen in isolation but in conjunction with other changes in education that the government purports will lead to educational, socio-economic and political trans- formation. Other major changes made were the introduction of the South African Schools Act and the National Qualifications Framework.

The government argues that the Schools Act provides for the democratisation of education through school governing bodies demo-cratically elected parents, teachers and students who are responsible for school governance. This is simply a smokescreen. In reality, the Schools Act has become a means for the government to shift its financial responsibility to parents’ shoulders.

This shift has paved the way for semi-private (Model C) schools. The ultimate goal of the government is to ensure that schools should function independently as businesses. This business-like approach means that market forces will now determine which schools will be effective. Despite the government’s claims that all public schools are equal, it is obvious that under such conditions disadvantaged schools will languish financially and remain oppressed.

The government’s idea of transforming education amounts to little more than privatisation.

If the Schools Act states how schools should operate administratively, then OBE defines how schools should function educationally what must be taught and how it should be taught. They form the twin pillars of the South African education system.

At the heart of the education ministry’s argument for OBE is the notion that a curriculum change will lead to socio-economic and political transformation.

However, this argument is flawed in that a curriculum change in itself cannot bring about economic development and growth and it will not remove the inherent inequalities that exist.

The formulation of the National Qualifications Framework was a combined effort by the government, labour and business to promote a system of lifelong learning. This initiative claimed that a system of Competence Based Education would improve workers’ skills levels, enhance their job prospects and, hence, their standard of living.

In 1997, the principles underpinning Competence Based Education were adopted by the formal schooling system as OBE and officially became known as Curriculum 2005. OBE is, therefore, an integral part of the National Qualifications Framework and is driven by the interests of big business. It aims to produce a labour force that will make the country “economically competitive”.

The problem with the National Qualifications Framework is that it is not based on sound educational philosophies but is grounded in a technicist approach the teaching of technical skills. It argues that the education system is out of step with the working world. Consequently, students must be prepared for the workplace. OBE, with its emphasis on skills and competencies, becomes the vehicle for achieving this.

The tendency within industry, as far as labour is concerned, is to simplify work by separating knowing from doing, knowledge from skills. Knowing is the function of management and doing the function of workers. Very little formal education is needed to equip workers with these skills. With an exit point at Grade 9, it becomes clear why OBE must be introduced into the schooling system so that school and work may complement each other. The government’s claim, that the educational system must change to give students exposure to higher-level skills, is a fallacy. Instead, students will be exposed to an inferior level of learning to prepare them for the future workplace.

Globalisation and the rapid development of technology constantly makes certain forms of labour redundant. This situation demands a flexible worker and flexibility must also be reflected in the workplace so that if workers are retrenched, they can easily learn new skills and obtain new jobs. The present skills-based education has severe drawbacks, especially, for developing countries suffering from rampant unemployment.

The National Qualifications Framework’s argument for life-long learning, as a means to improving the worker’s level of skill, falls flat in the face of the current economic trend towards the casualisation of labour the employment of contract workers who are denied access to social benefits.

Industry, in a cost-saving exercise, has reduced its social responsibilities to educate and train our workforce. The government, with its OBE programme and as a major employer, perpetuates this state of affairs.

The Schools Act together with OBE is set to change the nature of education but not in the way the education ministry claims. Instead of assisting with the process of transformation, it will have the reverse effect. Schools will be run along strict business lines where they will be in direct competition with one another. They will be in the market for students hoping that parents are willing to pay for the price of their commodity education.

Schools will no longer provide learners with a sound general education. Instead, the focus will be on a modular approach where learning will become more fragmented and students will be accredited according to unit standards.

OBE also holds serious implications for teachers. One of the purposes of OBE is to make the education process independent of the knowledge and skills of the teacher. This places education firmly under the bureaucratic control of the education authorities. The role of the teacher will simply be to facilitate students. In this way, teaching is being deskilled. This gives substance to the state’s assertions that teachers are overpaid and, therefore, justifies its decision to downscale or remove their benefits.

Some of the criticisms levelled at OBE from an educational point of view are:

There has been little or no

consultation with teachers at a grass-roots level;

The jargon used is confusing, disempowering teachers from the outset. This lack of understanding extends to the ranks of the subject advisers who are supposed to assist teachers;

The formulation of 66 outcomes (subsequently reduced) makes OBE overly prescriptive. A contradiction also exists in the fact that, while OBE argues that the learning process is up to the individual, the outcomes are fixed;

Well-equipped schools in terms of both human and material resources are in a relatively better position to implement OBE than disadvantaged schools in the urban and rural areas;

There is a lack of clarity on how the General Education and Training phase will link up with the Further Education and Training phase. The means of assessment to a large degree determines the curriculum. For, example, the matric/university entrance conditions will dictate what is taught in lower standards.

The current recommendations of the OBE review committee do not address the true nature of the problems besetting education. They merely deal with superficial issues that attempt to make the process more workable. In no way do they challenge the tenets of a system that are fundamentally flawed.

In conclusion, the Western Cape Parent Teacher Student Forum proposes a system of education in which the government takes full responsibility by:

Providing free, compulsory public education to tertiary level;

Implementing holistic and progressive education that extends beyond the teaching of skills that prepares youth only for the world of work;

Ensuring that any new measures relating to the curriculum are undertaken with proper consultation and involve school communities;

Redressing structural imbalances so that all children may have free access to quality education.

This article is a culmination of a series of discussions held by the Western Cape Parent Teacher Student Forum on OBE and related issues. Russell Bell is a teacher-member of the organisation


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