A curriculum that failed

Outdated and contaminated with apartheid ideology, the South African school curriculum had to be reformed after 1994. A new curriculum that promoted and upheld the values of the Constitution was needed – one we could all own and of which we all could be proud.

So it was that Curriculum 2005 was developed to fill the void. Its “critical outcomes” specified that learners, among other things, should be able to:

  • identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking;
  • work effectively with others as members of a team, group, organisation and community;
  • organise and manage themselves and their activities responsibly and effectively;
  • collect, analyse, organise and critically evaluate information;
  • communicate effectively in various modes;
  • use science and technology effectively and critically, showing responsibility towards the environment and the health of others; and
  • demonstrate an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation.

    Curriculum 2005 was progressive, outcomes-based and very different to its predecessor.

    It introduced a whole new vocabulary – learning areas, integration, outcomes, specific outcomes and assessment standards. Pupils became “learners” and teachers became “facilitators”. Classrooms’ seating arrangements were changed to facilitate group work.


    Like many others, I conducted workshops for teachers to explain the changes and to help them get to grips with the new curriculum. Since then i have sat uncomfortably in small chairs watching teachers struggle to teach numeracy lessons. At least half of the learners I have seen were bored or lost – and most teachers did not seem aware of it.

    I have observed many lessons and realised that the curriculum so painstakingly captured in the many guides to it was not always the one being translated in classrooms.

    After 1994, education and the new curriculum were seen as a means of transforming and improving society. As a new nation we declared our shared belief in education as a key piece of development and growth. Unfortunately, for many this has not been the case.

    The effect of apartheid education was far greater than we ever imagined and the hold of traditional practices on teachers has been very strong – particularly in ideas of what a “real” school is.

    To a larger extent teachers have adopted the new curriculum’s ideas through the patterns of the past. They simply use whole-class teaching approaches with different content.

    Most teachers also complain about the increased classroom administration that Curriculum 2005 has brought upon them. Primary school tests, such as the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, show that almost 80% of South African children do not have basic reading skills by the time they reach grade five, and only 2% measure up to the highest international standards of literacy.

    A minority of primary school children, mainly in privileged schools, reach target grade levels, but the vast majority do not achieve basic mastery in reading, writing and mathematics.

    We must be fair to teachers, however, because Curriculum 2005 was not the only change they were expected to implement in schools. The management and governance of schools also changed, and provinces implemented a myriad new policies and regulations.

    Consequently the demands on teachers’ time, energies and attention shifted and there was not enough focus on new instructional practices. Large classes and the instability and uncertainty caused by redeployment also played a role in undermining curriculum reform.

    The shortages of classrooms, resources and teaching materials have also affected the implementation of Curriculum 2005. The new curriculum required more experiential approaches to learning – something that is not possible with very large classes.

    For example, hands-on investigation in life sciences have seldom taken place, and chances for independent inquiry have also been limited by a lack of library books.

    Schools affect the life of every South African and the curriculum we offer demonstrates our commitment to democracy. Schools are a means of creating “a better life for all”: they are meant to be places where learners develop the necessary skills and values to participate and contribute in meaningful ways to society.

    A new curriculum was necessary to meet the changing needs of the country. Unfortunately Curriculum 2005 has left too many promises unfulfilled for far too many young people.

    Mark Potterton is the director of the Catholic Institute of Education

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