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Save the OBE system in South African schools urgently!

South African schools are in a mess because of the wrong manner in which Outcomes Based Education (OBE) was applied. This led Joey van Niekerk to write an open letter to the South African Minister of Education in the Beeld newspaper on April 17, 2008.  

In this letter Van Niekerk praises the points of departure and philosophy on which OBE are based, namely our humanistic and human rights-aimed constitution. She highlights the emphasis placed on Ubuntu, human dignity, morality, respect for life, for each other, and each others property, and for creation, as well as on creativity and self realization. She then continues to show that in spite of this, very few of these characteristics are found in our society.

According to her it seems this philosophy is either misunderstood by some educators, and therefore applied wrongly, ór the educational authorities are applying it wrongly.

In the letter she states that she agrees with the viewpoint that all people are equal. To her all people are equal in value, but not all people have the same intellectual abilities, gifts and talents.

She sees the tasks of educators “to help every child to develop his/her gift(s) to the best of their abilities”, but states that the way this philosophical viewpoint is realized in the South African Education System are to the disadvantage of many of our children.

She then illustrates this by hand of examples:

– “Pass one, pass all” policy

Children do not fail easily nowadays. Everything is done to promote children year after year so that they can “move up” with their peer group. The pass requirements, even in matric, are very low. The result of this is that those that did not master the work, cannot make it the next year. And every year the child’s backlog just becomes bigger. If the basis is not laid correctly, and if children do not grasp the most basic facts on which later knowledge is built, they just fall behind more. Even our gifted learners are frustrated by this system, and hindered to achieve their full potential – they become accustomed to just perform on average. This demoralizes the children, breaks down their self image, and frustrates them. This frustration then spill over into violence – increasing daily in our schools.

– Group work

Children with different abilities are thrown together in groups to work together on assignments and research projects. These assignments and research projects serve as the determining factor whether they succeed or fail. This leads to endless frustration and  is seen by them as very unfair, because everyone in the group gets exactly the same marks, even though some members of the group did all the work and others nothing. In this manner all are made “equal”. She sees this as a wrong application of the Ubuntu- principle.

– The nature of the assignments given is very often unrealistic.

Parents complain dearly about the nearly impossible assignments that their children brings home. Privileged children have an advantage. Their parents normally have the necessary knowledge and facilities to help their children. They normally have to jump in themselves and surf the Net to help the child find the information needed. They often work till late together with their children to complete these assignments.

Poorer children from lower socio-economic backgrounds though are at a disadvantage. Their parents normally do not have the knowledge, time, strength, abilities, facilities and tools to assist their children to complete that impossible assignment.

Add to this the lack of well equipped school libraries where children can search for information, and the lack of know-how on how to utilize the sources in libraries that are available.

– Every child must “discover the wheel” by him/herself.

According to this principle all rote learning (difficult memorizing) is out! Children may not learn tables, scientific formulas, etcetera, but must figure out by themselves for example what 7×9 is. The idea is that each should discover by him/herself what the answer is. It does not matter how he/she came by the answer. If he/she found their own method he/she obtains insight. But, she asks, “how many children ever obtain that insight?”.

She suggests that we should build on the knowledge of those that discovered things in previous centuries, not try to discover it over again. She states that because memorizing (rote learning) and anchoring/cementing of knowledge were thrown overboard, South Africans in comparison with other countries, have performed dismally in mathematics, in the sciences and in languages

– Teachers as curriculum specialists

Educators are expected to achieve an overwhelming amount of outcomes, but must then decide for themselves how they will achieve those outcomes in their specific educational environment.  

It is therefore expected of every teacher to be a curriculum specialist, even though they were never trained to be one. This however is an area that requires very intensive training, which cannot be covered by the four year training that teachers receive. This leads to differentiation. What is done at one school differs radically from what is done at   others. This in turn leads to gaps in education.

– Text books/Hand books

In many learning areas learners are not supplied with text books anymore. Portfolios are compiled and notes (often incohesive and badly formulated, sometimes excellent) are provided as loose leaf pages to learners. When studying for tests the information on these portfolios and loose pages are often so poorly formulated that it is difficult to know what should be learned, and because of the lack of text books learners cannot search for additional information.

  Other problems that Van Niekerk identifies are:

 – All learners are compelled to take mathematics and mathematical literacy to Grade 12

This ignores that fact that not all children have an aptitude for numbers but they sometimes have great aptitudes in other areas.

– Language

Why are such high and lofty words used for everyday concepts? She calls this a form of academic snobbism. This causes a problem for millions of children that have to master these concepts in a language that are not their own.                                                                                                                                                                   Paper Work

Our educators are carrying a huge administrative load, caused by OBE. There is the endless evaluation, the loads of forms that must be completed, portfolios that have to be compiled and research assignments that have to be marked. This transforms them into tired, burned-out administrative officers and impacts on their teaching performance.

In other countries where OBE was applied, the average ratio of learner per teachers is normally between 9:1 and 16:1 (according to the type of class) and every teacher has an administrative officer that helps with the paper work and evaluation. In South Africa the ratio is 55:1 and our teachers get no assistance.


Van Niekerk suggests that the good from the OBE system should be taken and then combined with good methods and curricula from the old education system

Joey van Niekerk was previously a researcher and curriculum specialist at the Bureau for Curriculum Planning and Evaluation of the former Transvaal Education Department, as well as lecturer at two teachers training colleges and education departments of two universities.

 To read Joey van Niekerk’s original letter that was published in Afrikaans in the Beeld newspaper on 17 April 2008, Click Here!



5 Responses

  1. Thank you for you letter, as a mother of a child in Gr4 I am appalled at the OBE content. But what concerned me more was the lack of adequatte practice in basic mathematics and english grammar in the classroom. Where almost every single sum EVER done in the classroom in my childs workbook is wrong, there needs to be more practice and perhaps a different method applied to the EXPLANATION. I have had to reteach the entire Maths and English syllabus to my daughter in the holidays in a manner in which she could understand WITH simple rules and regulations governing both subjects well laid out with my own examples and practice until it is understood. This worked well.
    But what has appalled me the most is THE REMOVAL of textbooks!!!!!!!! I am gobsmacked that people calling themselves educators have the gall to remove higher forms of learning from the system.
    This OBE curruculum has left me with a depressed child with average and below avergae performance and quite frankly the teachers dont care.
    I do believe that research will show under parr performance of children in this system with the poor being disadvantaged.
    From parents point of view, please put my comments forward because I am deeply concerned about the education of my child and what the outcome will be if I do not intervene.

  2. It comes as no surprise that the current education system in our country is in crisis. There was absolutely no chance of OBE being successful in the South African context because of a chronic lack of resources, lack of teacher support and overcrowded classrooms. What we have in our schools now is some sort of curriculum that purports to be learner centred but in fact is not. There appears to be some sort of attempt to reach
    outcomes of a sort. We are back to examinations again. Learners are not assessed when they are ready to be assessed but write examinations on dates determined by the education authority on content that is fed to them in the most peculiar way by means of handouts. In addition learners and parents are subjected to volumes of project work that is stored in portfolios. The end result is that teachers are totally bogged down in paperwork and therefore cannot not teach anymore. I wonder if the beaurocrats in education would survive in a modern classroom situation.

  3. the future of our country is in a mess if the department don’t fix this problem.i’m doing B Ed first year and im scared that when i graduate in 2012 the department would have introduce another curriculum ,different from what im doing now.

    according to me,the education system we had then was an out come based,not the present.it has produce doctors,lectures and engineers,are we going to have the same in 2015 i doubt t,here is a lot of things that South Africcan school need than continues change of curriculum.Resources and qualified teacher.Changing the curriculum, won’t help .

    HELP THE SHIP OF SOUTH AFRICAN EDUCATION IS SINKING,this is bit by bit taking S.A back to informal education,where there was only an intervention of an adult in the life of a young child with the aim of supporting them to grow up as a responsible citizens,and to respect the norms and values of the community BUT NOT TO READ AND WRITTE.What is the use of children going to school when the bring back test and exams to their parents for them to write at home ,who pass at the end of the day the parent or a learner?

  4. […] Save the OBE system in South African schools urgently! April 2008 3 comments […]


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