OBE Education in South Africa - is the experiment going to work?

By Glenn Ashton · 13 Dec 2008

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Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Wikimedia Commons

This year is the first that school students – or learners as they are now known - are to matriculate under the new Outcomes Based Educational system. OBE was adopted as one of the first major policy innovations under the newly democratic government in South Africa, under the ideological guidance of the first minister of education, Sibusiso Bengu.

The demand to meaningfully change the educational system in South Africa was a priority intervention. The old system, irrevocably tainted by the legacy of the dysfunctional and polarised apartheid educational system, urgently needed to change.

Despite the best intentions of those who worked towards transforming the educational system from within during the struggle years, such as the mass democratic movement aligned National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), many years of hard work towards transformation were set aside in favour of the outright adoption of a completely new system under the aegis of an Outcomes Based Education system or OBE. 

It was notable that the NECC, forged in the struggle to create alternatives to the hated Bantu educational system, was backed not only by groups like the United Democratic Front – the de facto in-country ANC – but also by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). 

It was was therefore ironic that when COSATU became a partner in the governing ANC alliance - along with SA Communist Party and the ANC itself - it compromised its historical NECC alliance and supported the newly proposed OBE system. While COSATU wanted a National Qualification Framework, this was spliced inextricably into the OBE system that become the model for a revised national educational system.

OBE is not without controversy elsewhere in the world. Its conceptualisation by behavioural psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and the adoption of OBE in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, led to early criticism of the system from disparate sources. In many parts of the world its adoption was linked to a drop in standards and in the USA it has been widely rejected. 

In South Africa there was from the outset strident disparagement of both the process behind the adoption of the OBE system and its implementation. This came from those within the NECC but also, perhaps as importantly, from bodies such as the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) as well as from academia and pedagogues. 

Whilst some critique may have been tainted by vested interests, most was well-intentioned and aimed at the heart of the matter, namely that a technocratic led coup d'etat had occurred in the educational system, with little or no broad consultation. However such criticism was rejected and OBE was essentially declared a fait accompli and adopted with little consultation or debate.

The OBE system was implemented by a vanguard of newly recruited young technocrats within the department of education. Its frameworks were formally adopted in 1997 and the curriculum in 1998. It is now widely accepted that there was insufficient dialogue about important details like curricula and teaching materials. 

It is also worth considering the hidden influence of neo-liberal ideology at the time of OBE adoption. World Bank and International Monetary Fund influenced concepts of fiscal responsibility were neoliberal tools ostensibly implemented to drag South Africa out of the legacy of its apartheid debt and to integrate it into the global economic system. But such interference had profound consequences on everything from the rejection of the Reconstruction and Development Programme to the adoption of OBE. One telltale sign was how increased class sizes were pushed, while teachers were similtaneously marginalised and 'rationalised'. 

But aside from the history, what has a decade of OBE shown us? More importantly, we must ask on the eve of the announcement of the first matric results to be released under this new system, whether what has been promised has been delivered? Have we got a better system for all South Africans, irrespective of race or background? Or have we adopted the proverbial pig in a poke?

Indications are that all is not going to be well. The educational system remains starkly polarised. Well resourced schools remain so while poor urban and rural schools responsible for the education of the majority of our people continue to struggle, despite nearly 20% of our national budget being consumed by education. Poor infrastructure, collapsed school feeding schemes and lack of teaching aids, textbooks and materials are a reality. Gangsters make the attendance of school a daily hazard in urban slums.

Whilst the concept of a non-discriminatory educational system is wonderful, the reality is rather more sobering. A one size fits all system is fine, if everyone gets the same tools with which to learn, that is. But dishonest attempts to massage the system and to set the pace at the cadence of the slowest both disadvantages the most able and limits the potential of those less so.

In order for OBE to work, a curriculum that is open to constant improvement through learned collective experience is needed. OBE principles are widely recognised to work best in small classes but instead we have classes of at least 35 students and sometimes 50 or more. These are not ideal conditions by any stretch of the imagination, neither for the brightest nor the slowest. 

Perhaps the most trenchant critique of the system from the outset has been that it is incapable of narrowing gap between the educational haves and have nots. Even Kader Asmal, who inherited the framework of the system and did his damnedest to make it work while Minister of Education, commented that more work should have gone into training educators to adopt to the new system. This remains a serious shortcoming. 

It will be revealing to note how the traditionally successful schools, notably the old model C and private schools, will shape up compared to those at the other end of the scale. There are indications the gap may have widened instead of narrowing. This is a shared perception amongst those closest to the coalface of educational reform.  

We also need to enquire whether OBE simply lowers the bar for high achievers, whilst relegating those who have traditionally struggled to mediocrity, instead of realising  individual potential. This may not only be the fault of OBE but may be more closely tied to a national obsession with the matriculation exam as a bellwether of achievement.

This fallacy needs careful interrogation. Every year thousands of matriculants, whose parents have scrimped and saved to put them through school for their betterment, complete their curriculum unprepared for the challenges of the modern workplace. This is the real test of OBE. Will this new crop of matrics be better prepared than any before? This is the question upon which the entire system should stand or fall. 

We must also ask whether there is a need to shift away from the sharp focus on academic achievement? Would not school training for trades, development work, agro-ecology and nation building be more relevant? This may have been the intent behind adopting OBE, but has it, or even more relevantly, can it, achieve these goals? Do we throw vast amounts of money at the problem? Or should we change tack?

In building our new country students need to maximise their individual potential. This need not only be towards academic achievement or supportive of wealth creation. It should equally include analytical thinking, practical applications and questioning of the status quo in a realistic manner that benefits not only the individual but the nation as a whole. Is OBE an experiment that is working? If not, then where do we go from here?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Short
12 Dec


I like this phrase extracted from your closing paragraph:

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