The Congress of South African Students (Cosas) has, for the first time in its history, made daring proposals on the specifics of the content of the public school curriculum. It wants agriculture to be declared a compulsory school subject.
This public stance comes hot on the heels of the government’s decision to introduce history as a compulsory school subject for all public secondary school pupils.
The stance taken by the congress cannot be dismissed, given the historical and political role that Cosas has played both in our communities the public education milieu. It has also been a breeding ground for successive generations of leaders in the governing party.
Like other political organisations, Cosas has had its own fair share of controversy. In June the eThekwini branch invited former president Jacob Zuma to deliver an address on the subject of free education. Cosas denied that doing so indicated it was taking a position in the ANC’s ongoing factional battles. This is the same Cosas that protested outside Parliament in support of the former president when — while he was still in power — he was faced with yet another motion of no confidence.
Whatever we make of Cosas as a political player, it remains a force to reckoned with, given its historical alliance with the governing ANC. But history has taught us that political fortunes change with the times, depending on how a political formation adapts to the rapidly changing political environment.
Whether Cosas will retain its influence in politics and education is anybody’s guess. But the declaration by Cosas that the teaching of agriculture as a school subject will help prepare pupils for working on farming land, which may be appropriated by the government without compensation, is a rather a short-sighted view of the complexities of school curriculum change.
The management of curriculum change is a complex transformative process which cannot be influenced by knee-jerk political responses to dominant political issues of the day. The history of curriculum change in South Africa has taught us that its content, form and pace cannot be determined by any single agent.
When the government abruptly opted for the infamous outcomes based education, it was only a matter of time before it conceded that OBE was not working. It then commissioned several processes that aimed to ensure curriculum change was managed in a more responsible, efficient and effective manner.
The previous, misguided approach to curriculum change cost the country a lot of money and a substantial loss of goodwill from other stakeholders in public education. Quite a few teachers deserted the classroom because of their inability to cope with the impossible demands imposed on them by the unrealistic approach to curriculum change.
Business doubted and questioned the capacity of government to manage curriculum change. One could argue that, as a result, business became reluctant to invest capital in the failing, government-driven curriculum change experiment. There was also a decline in public confidence in the ability of government to manage curriculum change effectively.
The sooner Cosas realises the complex nature of curriculum change, the better for the country as a whole. My limited research on curriculum change highlights the intensity of contestation in the management of the curriculum change process.
After government abandoned the OBE curriculum, there were significant initiatives by other education stakeholders, aimed at influencing the government curriculum change initiatives. For example, major teacher unions prepared their members for the ongoing curriculum change process by driving their own teacher training programmes, which helped their members to cope with the stresses of curriculum change. Perhaps Cosas should take a leaf out of the unions’ books and begin to secure resources that will enable it to train its members on the complexities of curriculum change.
I tend to be sympathetic to Cosas’s venture into the pertinent debates on curriculum change but, like many others, I am disappointed by its politically ambitious stance of linking the teaching of agriculture to how it envisages the outcomes of land appropriation.
Cosas’s stance also tends to oversimplify the idea of appropriation of land without compensation. Surely agriculture as a school subject does not necessarily imply that a large number of pupils, upon graduating from school, will be scattered in the farming fields of South Africa, ploughing their newly-found land. Cosas’s stance seems to be a desperate political posturing, with a view to finding some space in the rapidly unfolding processes associated with land appropriation.
There seems to be a dominant view, not only in Cosas but also in the governing party, that the determination of school subjects is a fundamental aspect of the effective management of school curriculum change. There is actually more to the process of curriculum change than “nicely” packaging school subjects for teachers and pupils.
Recent trends in curriculum change, by contrast, indicate a move towards the elimination of school subjects as the core of the curriculum. These trends indicate that governments can offer public school education without compartmentalising education into fragmented subjects.
The debate on curriculum change should have its focus beyond the unfolding social, economic and political drama about appropriation of land without compensation. Such crucial debates should rather prepare pupils for the inevitable demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Such agendas should rather seek answers to deep questions on issues of technological skills, artificial intelligence, the individual’s capacity to manage change, challenges of globalisation and reclaiming our African-ness, just to mention a few issues.
Given these complex macro challenges of curriculum change, surely the issue of the compulsory teaching of agriculture will be lost in the greater scheme of more compelling debates on school curriculum change.
Dr Tutu Faleni is a DA member of the North West provincial legislature. He was previously a lecturer in curriculum studies at the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University. These are his own views