Time for a debate

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga recently released the “Schooling 2025” blueprint. Have you read it? Did you comment on it? Have you discussed it in your local community? For most of us, the answer to all these questions is “no”. Yet this blueprint, with earlier policy and legislation, has a profound impact on us, our children and the future of our society.

Most parents avoid such debate because they are not sure they fully understand what outcomes-based education (OBE) is, what the new, or last, or revised curriculum looks like and therefore do not feel equipped to engage in any debate about education.

Moreover, you would be perfectly correct in wondering why the education world is gripped by an apparently meaningless debate about whether OBE is dead, who gave birth to it and who murdered it … if it even survived childhood.

Informally, however, we debate education issues constantly. Our concerns don’t revolve around OBE though. I think we all accept that schools need to teach skills and need to be held accountable for their success or failure in doing so.

Instead, the discussion is about such issues as how the first additional language is taught and whether that should be isiZulu or Afrikaans; whether the maths that gets taught is adequate to access university courses; whether standards are falling; and how can we support language homework if we don’t speak that language.

These are all questions relating to the quality of the teachers, the curriculum and subject syllabuses, not OBE.

The problem is that this discussion doesn’t reach policymakers. How do we ensure that our discussions have an impact on the policymaking process?

We need to be engaging in — and in many cases this means opening the debate — robust dialogue with our schools, district office, parents, community members and the broader community about what we want from “our” school as a community and, if the local schools are not delivering what we want, what we can do about it.

The community should explore what it wants from its schools, not the other way round. It should not be a debate about how much money the community needs to give the school, but about the values, quality of service, norms and so on that the community expects its school to reflect and model.

This local debate needs to be reflected at national level, with a real national debate about what we, as South Africans, want from our education system; the sort of graduates we want, the skills we want our children to learn in school and the values we want our schools to advance and build in our children so that they become effective citizens and understand the democratic and social justice norms that underpin our Constitution, but often not our behaviour.

The time is ripe for such a debate. At present the debate is largely confined to professionals in closed rooms and all too often is played out in a form of codes such as “OBE”, “RNCS”, “LOLT” and so on, which are obscure at best to most of us and prevent us from engaging.

What we need, then, is real national debate with all of us encouraged to take part at local and national level. We all have an interest in what our education system will look like over the next decade and beyond, as this is the basis for our future as a society.

Parents need to get hold of Schooling 2025 and discuss it and, if they so wish, make presentations to Parliament related to its provisions.

At the very least it needs to be discussed as a school community so that all concerned can decide how the school should respond to its provisions, ensuring that it serves the needs of the community.

Linked to greater engagement between parents and schools, I want to talk about the role of parents and their children’s homework.
Homework dominates many households night after night. Increasingly, teachers seem to expect parents to assist with homework.
Recently, Alfie Kohn in his book The Homework Myth described homework as the “800-pound gorilla that dominates many homes”, arguing that homework is not necessary to achieve a successful education.

One only has to look at Finland, which is widely credited with having the most successful education system in the world, to see that homework may not be critical.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development analysis, Finnish pupils are set less homework than children in almost any other system, yet do better in international tests.

We, however, are in lockstep with the English system which views homework as critical. And, certainly, if it is set carefully and marked constructively, it is one of the best ways of ensuring that what has been taught has been learned and can be applied.
However, the amount of homework, the teachers’ expectations of parental input into homework and the assumptions made about IT capacity at home needs to be discussed openly between the parents and the school.

I am therefore arguing for a national debate on key education issues — not OBE — so that we can reach a national consensus on what we want from our education system and gain a more open approach by schools to engage parents and the broader community so that there is real local dialogue.

It needs to done in open community discussions in which the expectations of the community for the school and vice versa are debated, as well as at national level.

Martin Prew is the executive director of the Centre for Education Policy Development

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