AGAINST THE ODDS: Well into a multiparty democracy, teachers are still grappling with a constantly changing curriculum, among other issues, says the writer. 	Picture: Ryan Gray / Reuters
AGAINST THE ODDS: Well into a multiparty democracy, teachers are still grappling with a constantly changing curriculum, among other issues, says the writer. Picture: Ryan Gray / Reuters

New curriculum, same problems

By Time of article published Jul 2, 2012

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AS WAS expected, this year’s ANC policy conference lived up to its billing: a meeting of politicians dominated by the debate over the “second transition” – a concept rejected as a guise by President Jacob Zuma to secure himself a second term.

Predictably, heavily laden phrases such as “truly prosperous, inclusive, non-racial and non-sexist society” resonated throughout Zuma’s opening speech last week.

“… we are therefore calling for a dramatic shift or giant leap, to economic and social transformation, so that we can be able to deal decisively with the triple challenge,” Zuma said.

As matters stand, the president has called for “a dramatic shift or giant leap”. How naïve?

It is not as if this was unexpected. It has become the ANC-led government’s quintessential currency to take shortcuts in the quest “to redress the injustices and imbalances of the past”, to borrow that political cliché.

Eighteen years since the advent of multiparty democracy, teachers are still grappling with the constantly changing curriculum.

From the highly criticised pupil-centred, skill-based outcomes-based education (OBE) and the (revised) content and knowledge-orientated National Curriculum Statement (NCS) to the current Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) – outlining what content ought to be taught and assessed on a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject basis – the trials and tribulations over the curriculum conundrum continues.

While the new curriculum is widely praised as a fairly simplified and user-friendly syllabus focusing on the critical areas of literacy and numeracy, there are anxieties in some schools about the inexorable fast pace at which it is being implemented. Bronwen Wilson-Thompson, a curriculum expert at Wits University, rightly puts it: “The consultation was very quick and the implementation and training was quite rushed. The pace of the curriculum can be quite fast and it can be a challenge to the teachers.”

More disconcerting is that poor implementation persists while the ANC’s policy document on education clearly states that the “Department of Basic Education is strengthening teacher development programmes…” and that “the new curriculum must be accompanied with skills development for teachers”.

The principal of Parktown High School for Girls Anthea Cereseto highlighted the problem more starkly.

“Of course, they have made some improvement and simplification, but there is still room for improvement in certain subjects. In subjects like physical science, there isn’t enough time given for teachers to cover concepts sufficiently for pupils to put on their scientific thinking caps,” says Cereseto.

“The curriculum is user-friendly, but the worry is that it is too long and the teachers and learners are made to work fast. We need some ‘white space’ – a little bit of time to do a little thinking.”

It’s not difficult to see why. In their haste to implement the new curriculum, the education authorities wantonly neglected inherent problems such as inadequately trained teachers.

This has cast doubt on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s commitment to an efficient transition from OBE to the new curriculum, when she made pronouncements of a massive training drive while launching NCS in July 2010.

Considering that the rashness in implementation is in direct conflict with the recommendations by the Ministerial Review stressing that teachers should receive “targeted subject-specific training” – especially in numeracy/maths and literacy/English – this is disconcerting indeed.

More so when recent research has shown that an average of between 40 and 50 percent matric pass rate in SA is below the continental average, despite SA pupils benefiting from better resources and lower pupil-to-teacher ratios.

Part of the ongoing frustration among teachers about NCS stems from the legacy connected with the wholesale borrowing of OBE from developed countries such as Australia and Canada.

In the quest to rid the country of a stifling, stultifying apartheid-era syllabus that entrenched white supremacy with an all-inclusive and qualitative curriculum, the government resorted to extreme measures by implementing OBE.

This was done without due consideration of the local contexts, including the glaring problems of overcrowded classes, inadequate resources and poorly trained teachers. OBE was bound to fail.

As Professor Muxe Nkondo, spokesman for the Association of Black Empowerment in Higher Education, once observed: “You can forget about OBE when only 2.7 percent of schools have libraries because it (OBE) is resource-and project-orientated and learner-centred.

“You can’t transport OBE from Canada, Australia or any advanced economy without due regard to our historical condition.”

The problem around OBE was also highlighted by the SA Democratic Teachers Union’s secretary-general Mugwena Maluleke.

“The Education Ministry must be careful about cutting and pasting from other countries. OBE was imposed on us by consultants. It had failed in Australia and England, why take it out of the recycle bin and use it in SA?”

The travesty was that authorities persisted on OBE despite the international benchmarking standards glaringly showing that SA pupils fell short when compared with their global peers in numeracy and numeracy tests.

The harsh reality about OBE is that there are thousands of children whose future was, for a period spanning 12 years, gravely compromised through the authorities experimenting a fated curriculum based on the ANC’s pet interests.

While NCS may not have been a radically new curriculum from OBE, we now have a curriculum that is comparatively broad and balanced and with the potential to give children that fair mix of creative, practical and academic plus social skills to prepare them for a life in the fast-paced 21st century.

But while the slimmer, trimmer CAPS has brought a glimmer of hope, it will take some willpower by education authorities if it is to succeed and lift the country from the education crisis it finds itself in.

And unless schools are well equipped with laboratories and libraries, textbooks are delivered on time and teachers are properly trained and with a highly developed professional ethic, the problems besetting most of the public schools will not diminish.

Critical to this is community involvement. Until we have a galvanised community that takes interest and pride in the education of their children, we will continue our flirtations with various curriculum models without any success.

As Trevor Manuel once noted: “With the best will in the world, national government is unable to monitor teacher attendance, whether teaching is actually taking place or whether students are in class learning.

“Without the actual involving of communities, we don’t stand a chance of improving the quality of schooling, especially in poor communities.”

The time is now.

Lest our education system degenerate into an apartheid-era “gutter education”, as Dr Mamphela Ramphele might say.

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