OBE: So last season

Rumours of outcomes-based education’s death this week were not so much exaggerated as stupendously belated.

Well-informed medico-educational opinion held that, when the infant called OBE was delivered in the South African classroom 13 years go, it was stillborn. More optimistic diagnoses held that there were weak signs of life that intensive care from birth onwards could nurture and strengthen.

But about five years ago, the chief government doctors stopped referring to the then toddler by its name. And current medical head Angie Motshekga this week maintained the silence right through her prepared statement on Tuesday this week.

In her puzzlingly pre-hyped announcement, it took her till question time to use the term “OBE”—its “ghost” was “being laid to rest”, she said.

She also referred dismissively to “that 1998 thing” being dead and gone.
As she said this, she half-ducked under her desk, but whether she was flinching to avoid political fallout or reaching for the corpse of “that 1998 thing” for all to see remained unclear.

So we need to get clear exactly what she did say. It was all in the first sentence of her prepared statement: “I am pleased to use this opportunity to brief and update you on the steps we have taken in 2010 to act on the recommendations of the ministerial committee that was tasked with the review of the implementation of the National Curriculum Statement in 2009.”

And that is all she did—updated us. It wasn’t clear why she was so pleased to have “this opportunity” to do so because she had herself created the opportunity.

That aside, there was nothing she (and previous education ministers) had not told us piecemeal before.

No, there was one thing: what used to be called “learning areas” will now be called “subjects”. She (or her speechwriters) seemed very pleased to have found something new to say, to judge from the capitals with which this startling development was presented in Motshekga’s written text: “SUBJECTS”.

As recently as a month ago, Motshekga’s director general fudged this newspaper’s direct question about OBE by saying (in effect) that current revisions were mere fine-tunings of the organically harmonious and triumphant whole that constituted post-1994 education.
But he was not the first to engage in official pussyfooting on OBE. Motshekga’s predecessor, Naledi Pandor, scarcely mentioned OBE. This was a relief after her predecessor, Kader Asmal, who could barely light a cigarette without extolling the virtues of a school system that even then only officials were seriously claiming was a success.

But Pandor’s reticence was certainly a sign that something was afoot in the circles of power. Possibly her own past as a teacher, and her own essential honesty, forbade her from banging on about OBE’s triumphs.

Motshekga also used to be a teacher, but you would never guess that from her seeming disdain for the heart of the matter: schooling depends on what happens in classrooms between teachers and pupils.

Seen like that, everything outside the classroom (including the minister) can be classified into just two categories: that which helps what happens in classrooms and that which doesn’t.

Falling squarely into the latter category is political squeamishness—easily tracked in the seesawing frequency with which officials have used the term OBE during the past 16 years—about admitting that OBE has been a catastrophic error for South Africa.

It is not the benefit of 20:20 hindsight that prompts this observation. First, the early misgivings about OBE were numerous, cogent and high-profile—pre-eminently from Jonathan Jansen, who spent much of the 1990s writing articles titled “Why OBE will fail” in places as varied as academic journals, this newspaper and Fair Lady magazine.

Second, the current complacency of pundits now gloatingly chanting “we told you so” is hard to take from people who appear not to remember why OBE was introduced nor to have any coherent alternatives.

OBE is a teaching and learning method intensively debated by educationists, unionists and others through the struggle years, especially through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, whose overriding priority was that South Africa’s children should never again have to endure the racist, sexist and authoritarian strictures of apartheid-designed “Christian National Education”.

In intention, OBE was a perfect choice to achieve these aims of liberation: in brief, it centres on children and their needs—not those of school inspectors, ministers and churches.

But its resource needs are huge—OBE requires very small classes, superb infrastructure (a computer not only for every teacher but every child too, for instance) and excellently trained teachers possessing depths of subject knowledge, enthusiasm and innovation rarely found in classrooms (or lecture halls) anywhere in the world. South Africa post-1994 simply could not afford any of this.

Those who now say, but didn’t say then, that OBE wasn’t the way to try to achieve that need to answer one question: What other system would they have implemented as of 1994?

Remembering these origins also helps to explain long-standing official reluctance to proclaim the death of OBE: the political cost would have been too high. The ANC has surely been mindful of its voters: it can fool many of us about all manner of government cock-ups—such as whatever it is that is happening in the presidency these days.

But there are very few South Africans so blinded by government spin—or so rich—that they believe their children are receiving anything other than inferior treatment in their classrooms: most of us see the results of this treatment (as opposed to those squabbles in the presidency, say) in our own homes in the demeanour of our children every day.

Which returns us to the place and the people that matter above all else in schooling: the classroom, the pupils, the teachers. Whatever we want to call our system of education, they must be the unswerving focus.

What assists them—good training for teachers, consistent district support to schools, safe buildings and sanitation, a syllabus that all parties involved can understand—must be promoted. What undermines them—lack of electricity and libraries, wayward teacher unions, remote politicians—must be opposed.

And our children are in for another long wait now for the education ­benefits they were promised a long time ago.

Motshekga’s update

  • Teachers’ administrative loads will be reduced;
  • A “repackaged” curriculum will specify term-by-term subject topics and assessments, to be phased in from next year starting with grades R to three;
  • Learning areas and programmes will be called “subjects”;
  • From next year, grades one to six (involving 6,5-million learners and 180 000 teachers in 20 000 schools) will receive workbooks developed by the education department;
  • Grades three, six and nine will have externally set assessments in literacy (home language and first additional language) and numeracy/mathematics;
  • Grades four to six will study only six subjects (not the current eight);
  • Public comment is invited on all these changes; and
  • A “comprehensive turnaround plan” called
    Action Plan 2014: Towards a Realisation of Schooling 2025 will be released “shortly”.

  • David Macfarlane

    David Macfarlane

    David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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