Confessions of a lapsed OBE convert

I was still an OBE virgin when Emilia Potenza inducted me in 1997. Potenza, a curriculum expert, textbook author and former activist, rendered a history lesson about the ICU. I cannot remember exactly what the acronym means, but more than 10 years later I can still recall it was a significant South African trade union in the 1920s.

The lesson remains a definitive moment in my love-hate relationship with outcomes-based education.
Although the purpose of Potenza’s lesson was to provide a group of education reporters with an authentic OBE experience at a training session at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, it went beyond that.

It convinced me that Curriculum 2005 (C2005) and OBE were meritorious responses to a near universal call for change in South Africa’s classrooms. I could image the year 2005 in which, as the name “C2005” suggested, a new way of teaching would have transformed classrooms from grade one to 12 and a new school leaving certificate would replace what we know as matric.

Like any new convert I was particularly receptive to information that would reinforce my belief in C2005 and OBE. I gladly visited schools where OBE was being test-driven by great teachers who received a lot of support.

Why did OBE strike such a chord with me? Engaging and participatory, it was the antithesis of the staan-op-sit-stil-hou-jou-bek (stand up, sit down, shut up) approach which under apartheid taught us the “right answers” and served to silence and pacify so many of us. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work unfolded at the time, I think the realisation of the horrors that were being committed while we watched Haas Das fuelled the wide acceptance of a curriculum that would educate children who would be able to question and think for themselves.

OBE was chosen as a tool to democratise our minds. To do so, it had to bring about a dramatic break, which signalled to teachers that they should not continue doing anything they had done before. Whether their methods worked or not was immaterial.

What bothered me was all the dissenting voices about the poor orientation of teachers, the unavailability of textbooks, the sophistication of the curriculum which introduced teachers to more than 50 new complex terms.

One day in 1997 I asked the then education minister, Sibusiso Bengu, at a news conference about the rushed implementation. He suggested the hunger for change on the ground had to be fed, but also that this was the type of question that was typical of what he termed “conservative forces”.

The fact that the education bosses chose to confuse calls for caution as political opposition was a fatal error. So, OBE simply had to enter classrooms in 1998. It did so stumbling, and behind it, driving it mercilessly, bureaucrats such as the then deputy director general of education, Ihron Rensburg, who jumped ship long ago and is now earning big bucks as the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. I think he owes it to South Africa to speak out on OBE, 10 years later.

In those early days signals of crisis were everywhere. I was not quite ready to concede that OBE was not working its liberatory wonders on children. Moreover, I was still encountering what I believed to be sound OBE practices in the most unexpected places—rural schools, urban slums.

Bengu’s successor, Kader Asmal, called for a review, which vindicated every criticism raised in the preceding years. C2005 was flawed and had to be changed. In essence OBE lost its way in the heart of where education happens: in the classrooms. The majority of teachers did not know what to teach (content, reading, writing) or how to teach any more. In this vacuum too little was taught too ineffectively.

These realities annoyed Asmal. He said in private that if he could, he would have scrapped OBE. Politically it would have been untenable to get rid of what was meant to be a flagship project. However, in practice the review signalled a move away from OBE. I think the country is indebted to Asmal for his bravery in this regard.

Naledi Pandor has continued to build on this foundation, working hard to debunk the myths and misconceptions in which OBE became steeped from its birth. This entails a new focus on the teaching of reading and writing, which teachers wrongly thought they should stop doing.

It has been in the last three to four years that I decided OBE had failed, albeit not in its entirety. Many teachers began reconsidering their classroom practices and thrive in the manoeuvring space brought about by the freer curriculum. They also started to assess learners throughout the year, which has ensured that both learners and educators work throughout the academic terms. Ironically, this perhaps benefited good schools more than their poor counterparts where rejuvenation has been most needed.

Yes, OBE brought about change, but at a cost.

As more damning studies emerged lamenting the reading and writing abilities of South African children, OBE’s role in this could not be ignored. It simply magnified the problems in the weakest schools where educators were disempowered by C2005, because resources were lacking­ and support non-existent.

The OBE generation is around us, brimming with confidence, as the curriculum had intended, but somewhere in the future I fear we will pay the price of their under-education.

After 10 years it is time to concede.

The single most important legacy of OBE is another lost generation in South Africa’s poorest schools. These are the children who still cannot read, write and do maths—the all-important keys that are critical to unlocking the door in acquiring knowledge.

This has been a difficult confession.

Cornia Pretorius is an associate editor of the Mail & Guardian’s education unit and has been an education journalist since 1995

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