Welcome the Class of 2008

In great haste and with hugely inadequate conceptualisation and planning, the outcomes-based education (OBE) Curriculum 2005 (C2005) was introduced into a thoroughly bewildered and woefully under-prepared education system in 1998.

Soon after its introduction it became apparent that there were significant difficulties with almost every aspect of C2005. Learners in many of our schools were not learning to read, write or count and a significant number of teachers believed that disciplinary content was insignificant.
This is part of what the Class of 2008 experienced in their formative years. It cannot but have left its mark.

Although a review called for by former education minister Kader Asmal found C2005 had serious weaknesses, its implementation into grade 8 continued. This fateful decision meant that there would be no turning back from OBE and C2005.

The introduction of the new national senior certificate (NSC) curriculum in 2006 completed the post-1994 curriculum structure. Universities were among those who tried to shape this NSC curriculum to present learners with the intellectual challenges necessary for life in the 21st century.

With the OBE framework as a given, consensus was reached on the content of most of the subjects. However, the abolition of standard grade was strongly debated, especially with respect to mathematics, as was the relationship between mathematics and maths literacy.

In this new curriculum either mathematics or maths literacy is compulsory for all learners. The universities knew what to expect from mathematics standard grade candidates and had a wide range of professional course opportunities for such candidates. No such understanding currently exists regarding maths literacy, which was never intended to be a substitute for mathematics standard grade. This may well disadvantage the learners in their career choices, or leave them deeply challenged and perhaps defeated by the mathematics demands of their professional programmes.

Another challenge is that with the abolition of standard grade subjects, the entire group of grade 12 candidates for every subject must now be accommodated in a common national assessment framework. Such a step assumes a normal distribution of achievement, but given our history this may not hold. Disparities which are too wide to be contained within a single set of norms or criteria might well cause distortions, leaving the higher education sector unsure about the weight to attach to any candidate’s grades.

While there are a number of other uncertainties about this first group they are likely to be more confident and far less reserved and self-conscious than former generations. They are also likely to be more open to change and more comfortable with diversity. They will communicate easily (especially verbally) and be more adept with technology. They are likely to have different ways of learning.

But the evidence emerging suggests that because of their early primary school experience they may not read well and they may not write well. They will also not have had a strong induction into the knowledge disciplines. They will probably need a longer time to degree than the norm and will require consistent, focused learning support.

It takes at least 17 years (12 of them from grade one to 12) to create a good first-year university student and the ways in which this happens are common throughout the world. We are not getting it right.

It seems certain that for some time yet higher education will have to support the development of its new students in ways that few countries are called upon to do. The success of our nation in producing the next generation of new knowledge producers depends on this.

Brian O’Connell is vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. He was the head of the Western Cape education department at the time of the introduction and review of Curriculum 2005

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