Opinionista Brendah Nyakudya 8 July 2010

Dumb and Dumber

The dismal failure of outcomes-based education proves the inherent flaw in lowering standards to meet pupils – or anyone else, for that matter – rather than raising pupils to meet higher and better standards.

Here is a good joke for you. Knock, knock. Who’s there? The South African education system! Now that is one hell of a joke. But if it doesn’t have you rolling on the floor in stitches then, like me, you have had a serious sense of humour failure with the department of education and its epic failure where educating the children of South Africa is concerned.

This week minister of basic education Angie Motshekga announced that the ever-controversial outcomes-based education system would be reviewed and amended to bring about better matric results. She said, “We have (made) and will continue to make changes on an on-going basis…we expect better outcomes from the system”. How can the government still be reviewing and modifying a system 12 years down the line? Either it works or it doesn’t. And the stats show it doesn’t. From where I stand, this is a classic case of “We don’t know what the hell we are doing so we are going to fumble our way through it as we have always done”.

Motshekga went on to admit the curriculum has major problems. If that’s the case, why is the government so determined to keep on implementing it? The fact that it was implemented at all is a glaring show of the lack of logic prevailing in Pretoria. OBE was tossed aside by Canada, New Zealand, UK and the Netherlands after they tried it and it failed. Countries with better education infrastructure and resources came to the conclusion that this method of teaching was not producing results and scrapped it – only for us to take it on and for it to fail dismally!

The consistent drop in percentages in the pass rate would have alarmed any ministry, forced it to admit failure and to return to the drawing board. But not South Africa. For those who are unaware of it, this is how it has been working out for our matrics:

  • 2003: 73.3 % pass rate
  • 2004: 70.7 % pass rate
  • 2005: 68.3 % pass rate
  • 2006: 66.5 % pass rate
  • 2007: 65.2 % pass rate
  • 2008: 62.7 % pass rate
  • 2009: 60.6 % pass rate

This shows a steady decline, despite the fact that standards have been lowered over the years.  This problem apparently gave previous minister Naledi Pandor, and Motshekga a couple of sleepless nights. But while they tossed and turned in their beds, the youth of the country went uneducated. Some bright spark even decided the way to solve this problem would be to reduce the pass rate. Yes, it made sense to dumb-down the system. As it stands, to get a matric certificate in South Africa, candidates need pass only six subjects – three with a minimum mark of 30% and three with a minimum of 40% and the mediocre score of 70% gets you a distinction. 

Since when does one bring the standard down to the children? We should be a society that constantly strives to bring our children up to an unwavering standard that does not shift or change depending on their performance. Compared to other countries where a distinction is nothing below 85% and a pass has to be higher than 50%, we are at risk of proudly raising a non-competitive, uneducated generation which will have no appreciation of the value of working hard.

Problems with the education system are many and won’t just end when OBE is gone, though I have some thoughts. The way I see it, first thing would be to scrap the OBE curriculum altogether and adopt a more traditional method of education (e.g. GCE, O and A levels) which would depend less on the feelings, values, attitudes and beliefs of the pupils and emphasise the importance of attaining factual knowledge. In a country where the majority of pupils still lack the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, it’s unrealistic to lay the responsibility at the feet of the student by implementing an airy-fairy curriculum that does not specify or require a particular style of teaching or learning.

Secondly, I would revamp and bring back the teacher training colleges operating in the apartheid era. These were shut down by the department because they were seen as dysfunctional. In 2007, the ANC called for the reopening of the teacher training colleges to address the lack of teaching skills in the country. This idea was never followed through on. It’s a shame this wasn’t rectified to ensure there was still a channel that produced quality teachers. For regardless of how they were perceived after the apartheid era, they produced a high standard of competent teachers – something which has been found to be lacking thereby resulting in the “dysfunction” being passed on at school.

Thirdly, and probably the hardest to fix, teachers should not be at the bottom of the school chain. Lack of support and resources, being underpaid and subject to violence have resulted in many of the good teachers we had abandoning ship and looking elsewhere for better opportunities. It’s foolish to assume that quality teachers will hang around under such unsavoury conditions. There are many examples in and around Africa of education systems that have worked and produced quality students able to compete on a global platform and hold their own. How much would it hurt to go on a fact-finding mission and learning some lessons from those places. The cost of an airplane ticket and swallowing your ego is nothing compared to the cost of having an ignorant future generation.

With a fifth of the national budget going to education, parents should demand better schooling and better institutions for their children. I dare anyone to blame the previous regime for the current lack of educated children. In 16 years, these problems should have been rectified or at least be well on their way to being fixed. We have the budget and the freedom to give every child a good education and yet we have failed them miserably. As a nation we should be ashamed. The success of campaigns such as the World Cup should feel hollow when we look around and realise we have failed to give our future generation a chance to succeed. In a chilling statement, Cornia Pretorius from the Mail & Guardian stated: “The single most important legacy of OBE is another lost generation in South Africa”.

But then maybe we should have known better than to trust our children’s education to a woman who said, “Matric results do not make you a good leader”.

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