Does OBE deserve the death penalty?

Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, announced two weeks ago the umpteenth education dispensation since the ANC government came into power in 1994. Her announcement resulted from an investigation undertaken by a ministerial task team that had to revise the implementation of the current school curriculum. This news was generally received with scepticism in the media.

The ANC Youth League’s Steven Ngubeni wrote: “Goodbye, OBE, hello, Oh what on Earth is next?”

According to David Macfarlane in the Mail & Guardian: “Rumours of OBE’s death this week were not so much exaggerated as stupendously belated.”

Tim du Plessis in Beeld referred to the “OBE mess”, said it was the ANC’s fault, and accused Motshekga of refusing to admit that OBE was in the “trash can”.

The larger picture concerning revisions of the implementation of the National Curriculum Statement suggests Motshekga has been sweeping the truth under the carpet to cover up the ANC government’s maladministration of education.

When she announced in Parliament on November 5 last year that her department was revising the curriculum, Hansard records her saying: “The question on everybody’s lips is why we do not, as Mamphele Rampele always wants us to do, declare the death certificate of outcomes-based education, OBE. I must say that we have, to all intents and purposes, done so. So if anybody asks us if we are going to continue with OBE, we say that there is no longer OBE. We have completely done away with it.” (Applause).

Yes, MPs applauded her in mute astonishment for her audacity, but from the next day she changed her tune. She must have been rapped over the knuckles by her ANC colleagues: her remark in Parliament was an indirect acknowledgement that the government was responsible for the incalculable damage done to an entire generation of learners’ school education and future careers—a lost generation of young people without the necessary knowledge and skills, without grade 12, or with a useless Senior Certificate.

The day after her parliamentary announcement in November, she refused to repeat what she had said about OBE. At the next meeting of the portfolio committee meeting on basic education she backed down and tried to reassure members with vague explanations that OBE was still in the picture. She even dragged in the Constitution to justify this.

In her media statement two weeks ago she did not refer to OBE at all. During question time she was reluctant to call it by name. She did, however, state that one should no more refer to “that 1998 thing” (OBE), but rather to the National Curriculum Statement (NCS).

Her departmental spokesperson, Granville Whittle, later told Rapport: “OBE remains the broad curriculum framework.” In these comments both Motshekga and Whittle make the mistake that has led to untold confusion since 1998.

One should distinguish between the NCS and OBE. The NCS outlines what content has to be dealt with in each subject in each grade, while OBE is an education approach—a way of teaching. And it is but one of many tuition methods.


A good educator constantly makes use of different methods of tuition, including OBE, while a poor educator might, for instance, merely present content knowledge to learners and then expect of them to reproduce it in an examination in parrotlike manner.

In brief, the difference between the NCS and OBE is the difference between what and how—what needs to be taught in the classroom and how it could be presented.

Ministers of education since 1998 have not only confused the what and the how in a multitude of contradictory and complicated policy documents, they have also presented such different types of outcomes that the curriculum was incorrectly referred to as the outcomes-based curriculum. Learning outcomes and skills have been so exaggerated that the memorising of content has been regarded as an unnecessary and useless exercise.

Learners have been expected to create content knowledge by themselves through research, exploration and working in groups or pairs, and then to reproduce what they have found out while the educator merely acted as facilitator. In the process reading, writing and numerical skills receded.

An assessment policy was simultaneously forced on educators that resulted in a ridiculous administrative workload and prevented them from spending time on their primary task, namely to teach their learners. Skills should not dominate the classroom to the detriment of content knowledge. Both are important.

A balance should be maintained between what a learner has to know and what he or she has to do with such knowledge. Learners cannot interpret a cartoon about World War II if they do not have factual knowledge about the war.

The “OBE mess” has also resulted from education authorities failing to ensure that all schools have the necessary resources, structures and support services, such as properly equipped school libraries, computer laboratories, access to the internet, manageable class sizes, an informed parent community and the absolutely essential involvement and guidance of expert and capable district authorities.

Furthermore, basic teacher training as well as the in-service training of educators have been inadequate. So, does OBE deserve the death penalty and should it end up in the trash can? No.

Thirty and 40 years ago, good educators also taught according to an outcomes-based approach. The only difference is that they did not give it a name. Teachers worth their salt plan what they want to achieve with specific lessons before tackling a topic and make sure that they have reached their objectives before turning from it.

The top schools in our country achieve success with this method because they are in all respects well equipped for the task and because their educators approach it with great dedication and a positive attitude, without losing sight of the necessity of content knowledge.

So what do the changes Motshekga announced mean and can they start fixing the chaos of our education system? In reality curriculum content has not changed much, except for grades four to six, in which the number of learning areas has been reduced from eight to six.

Now, too, the curriculum will be known as Curriculum 2025 and it promises to be a better structured, more streamlined and simplified document than the National Curriculum Statement and to have much more focus on basic reading, writing and numeric skills.

Much more emphasis is placed on content knowledge through the provision of workbooks and textbooks for all subjects for all learners in all grades, although there are still deficiencies in certain subject curriculums. Regarding the greater emphasis on subject content, care should be taken that textbook content does not become the alpha and omega of what a subject entails.

The curriculum should still be the most important prescription and the specific goals, objectives and assessment instructions for all defined subject topics should dictate the teaching in the classroom in each subject.

Curriculum development should be undertaken by trained developers attached to a permanent unit: they should develop, implement and maintain the curriculum continually in accordance with constantly changing demands of society—and according to scientific principles and methods.

Dr Junita Kloppers-Lourens MP is the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on basic education.

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