It's about standards, not standardisation

In the context of the transformation of South African education, curriculum, assessment and standards are critical issues.

The debate about these issues has come under the spotlight through the recent gazetting of the Education Laws Amendment Bill of 2002 for public comment.

The proposed Bill sets out to amend five education Acts to enable the minister of education to prescribe, inter alia, a national curriculum and a national instrument for the assessment of learner achievement (effectively one national examination) for public and independent schools. These proposed amendments have far-reaching implications for independent (private) schools, as they will significantly limit their independence.
This is of great concern to the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa), the oldest, largest and most inclusive independent schools association in the country.

What can we learn from international experience regarding the regulation of curricula and examinations? Donald Winkler, an international expert on education governance, writes that in developing countries the central government usually regulates curriculum standards.

Such standards usually apply to both private and public schools. Centralised decision-making does not necessarily imply a uniform curriculum. Several centralised countries have developed different curricula to meet the needs of different social groups.

On the question of assessment and examinations Winkler states that examination procedures vary more widely perhaps than other aspects of education. In some former British colonies exams are set and graded in England. At the other extreme are most countries in South America which have no national examinations. In between are countries that set and grade exams regionally.

Isasa’s research shows that in the majority of countries with a national curriculum, a choice of alternatives is available for independent schools, provided they meet required outcomes and standards.

Despite the introduction of a national curriculum in England under Margaret Thatcher, and a long tradition of centralised control over education in Scotland, independent schools in both countries have the option to choose from a number of different curricula leading to a range of local and internationally recognised examinations, such as the International Baccalaureate or the Lycee Francaise. In England, even state schools have a choice of curricula and examinations.

In the rest of the English-speaking world, the international norm is also to allow independent schools to choose which examinations their students write. This is not only true of countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but is also the case in all Anglophone countries in Africa, including South Africa’s immediate neighbours (Namibia, Swaziland and Botswana) and other Southern African Development Community members such as Malawi and Zambia.

Interestingly, in the history of the Cambridge International Examination, there have only been two instances where a country had banned this examining authority from administering its examinations: in Uganda under Idi Amin and, more recently, in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.

Why are options in curricula and examinations important to independent schools? Because they go to the heart of their independence—if they can’t choose what they teach and how it is assessed, what independence do they have? Because this is understood in most developed and developing countries, independent schools are accorded the right to choose their curricula and examinations.

The important function that independent schools fulfil in complementing public schools is a strength that ought to be recognised and nurtured. Independent schools, through their diverse missions, are able to offer unique solutions to the challenges of educating children. These include a range of faith-based education models from Hindu to Catholic, as well as schools offering alternative pedagogical or philosophical approaches, such as Waldorf, Montessori or transcendental meditation. Some independent schools also offer vocational training, while others cater for learners with special needs.

South Africa’s decision to adopt outcomes-based education is based on the premise that there are many valid learning paths in education and training and these can be rendered comparable through the outcomes they achieve.

Allowing space for differentiation and a variety of educational approaches also facilitates the achievement of many of South Africa’s stated educational goals—entrepreneurship, creativity, initiative-taking and self-reliance.

Choice of curricula and examinations allows independent schools to innovate and experiment with new pedagogical approaches and subjects. For instance, design and technology as a school subject was first introduced into South Africa by independent schools, and a number of independent schools are learning valuable lessons for the whole system by implementing the government’s inclusive policy of mainstreaming learners with special education needs.

In the context of globalisation and the developments in information technology, the world has become a very porous entity. Increasingly, independent schools are attracting international pupils from all over the world, and especially from the rest of Africa and the East, where the high quality of our education is recognised.

As the opportunities and capacity for learning to transcend national borders continue to grow, the need for South Africa to recognise a plurality of learning options and facilitate the portability of qualifications within and across countries becomes more important. International pupils are of significant benefit to the country, as the Department of Foreign Affairs has been quick to recognise: multiple copies of Isasa’s International Directory of Schools are ordered for all our embassies.

An appreciation of the reality of the global economy was critical to the establishment of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and the South African Qualifications Authority. This authority and its related bodies provide the mechanism for registering different qualifications, and parts thereof, on the NQF and maintaining standards across a range of learning pathways.

The issue is standards, not standardisation. Our Constitution recognises this by granting independent educational institutions their independence, provided they are registered with the state, do not practise racial discrimination and “maintain standards that are not inferior to those in comparable public institutions”.

Isasa and its member schools are concerned that the government’s notion of “one size fits all” will drive out innovation, experimentation and variety, and will negate the recognition of diversity and the right of parental choice. A range of educational options is valuable in all societies today, but especially in heterogeneous ones, such as ours.

South Africa needs an education system that can meet diverse challenges and allows the public and independent sectors to complement each other in contributing to the attainment of national goals.

Dr Jane Hofmeyr is the national executive director of Isasa

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