The most appropriate meaning of OBE is ‘Other Buggers’ Efforts’ G.S. James, OBE, past director of the DRL

The quotation heading this Journal Comment refers to the Order of the British Empire, an honour bestowed on services rendered to the nation usually in times of national crisis such as war. But I took the liberty of a parody on Outcomes Based Education since I thought it was most appropriate to the comments I wish to make on the education situation in this country, a very topical subject at the time that the ‘matriculation’ results are about to be published. Jimmy James’ modest comments on his award are not inappropriate to education. It is a time of crisis in the war against unemployment and poverty. It is used, not in a critical sense, but to reflect somewhat crudely some positive suggestions about our education structure particularly in this climate of global instability.

This is where departments of education and labour need the help of many others to avoid a revolt among the unemployed. Is it that much of a crisis? To many youngsters it is more like a question of survival in this time of increasing retrenchments, and the despair of so many school leavers staring at a jobless future. They are growing more militant as they come to recognize their increasing voting power. Some disturbing evidence has recently been obtained that there is a crisis in South African education of essential foundations missing in our system. The Business Day recently reported the results of an authoritative survey on the literacy levels of grade 4 and 5 pupils in South Africa. We were at the bottom of the list among 40 countries, and the literacy levels for South Africa were among the lowest recorded in the survey and have been like this for years. (The details of the survey can be found in the PIRLS website.) Coupled with reading literacy, there is the literacy in numbers and in communication.

Thereafter there is a sequence of fundamental steps without which civilized learning cannot take place. Such starting deficiencies, I gather, have become evident for years in rural schools, and many learners have been promoted into secondary schools by the assessment policy and are doomed to a very difficult future. I am writing this before the results of the school-leaving examinations have been published. They will be the first time that they represent the efforts of pupils working under the new system of OBE, (which has been imposed on all schools), so I am not sure what they will mean in relation to the old systems. One thing is certain and that is that the results will be doctored, as indeed is necessary in terms of assessments, moderation and statistical methods to provide a normal Gaussian distribution, whatever this means. When OBE was introduced more than a decade ago, I understood that the word ‘outcomes’ referred to an education designed to provide the skills for the majority of school leavers to fit directly into the employment opportunities offered by the nation.

This was to replace the theoretical and academic requirements demanded by a matriculation certificate, defined as a university entrance qualification. Over the period of introduction of the new system, this has come to mean an emphasis on topics involving ‘problem solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, team activities and environmental and community services’. Examinations were to be replaced by an assessment system done by the teachers themselves and endorsed by administrative evaluation. I fear that we may have tossed overboard the real fundamental basics of what society hopes to find in school leavers in favour of chasing some concepts, which the scholars are not yet equipped to understand let alone undertake. What are these fundamentals that I believe to be so important after the literacy starting point? In summary, here are the main ones I can suggest:  

The discipline of memory learning. This eliminates mental laziness, for example through learning multiplication tables and spelling and all the other activities to build up a programmed neuron database to last a lifetime  The discipline of respect and obedience to teachers and superiors  The discipline of concentration  The ability to communicate, both in writing and orally  The discipline of logical thinking and evaluation of right and wrong and input information  The ability and discipline of individually writing exams to demonstrate that one has acquired at least these fundamental disciplines. It is only with these attributes that specialized career training can commence, whether in tertiary education or in the first work opportunity. As one’s experience in the real world expands, creativity, problem solving and entrepreneurship can be fostered in a fertile and meaningful environment.

These fundamentals can be inculcated on the back of almost all subjects previously in the school syllabi: mathematics, the sciences, languages, history, geography and, recently, computer technology and business economics and management. The syllabi in such topics have evolved over centuries in many countries, and it is amazing how the same patterns have been adopted from east to west, especially the sciences and mathematics, as evidenced by the scientific literature and textbooks used at schools. I am doubtful whether our OBE system is winning in providing properly trained teachers to maintain the fundamentals within the new curriculum and examination systems, and whether the ‘outcomes’ applicable to South Africa have been properly identified. But these are probably outdated views. I am no longer in education, nor in the business of employing school leavers, nor in training them. This is where a huge effort is now required from the business community.

The new pudding has been in the oven and the eating will soon be forthcoming. In an unprecedented move, specimen examination papers were widely published in the press a short time ago. I was dismayed by the recipes but the eating must be done by industry, academia and particularly those in the many in-house-training enterprises. Because we are dealing with the real foundation stones of our society, there must be a profound interaction and transparent debate. The tourism industry should lead the field as the top millionaire-status job creating agency, in the light of 2010 invasion. Are we creating the language capabilities to service the hoped-for ongoing influx of South Americans, the Asians, the eastern nations, in addition to the stalwarts from Europe and North America? Is there any indication that we are likely to produce the teachers in science, mathematics and economics to provide the recruits into the engineering and techno/economic businesses?

What is the reaction of those in agriculture and food production, which seems to be reaching a crisis point, and which I consider to be one of the most fertile grounds to build job opportunities in the form of cluster farming villages and school and training activities? There is one positive example, maybe to signpost a way forward and which has received much publicity. It is a travelling chemical laboratory to teach secondary pupils the latest experimental aspects of chemistry. It is sponsored by BHP Billiton and is run by a retired chemist working with the country schools around the Richards Bay area. He claims to have influenced some 2 000 pupils writing the school-leaving exams and is hoping that they will do well and provide some teachers in future years. Any offers from other ‘OBE’s (Other Business Enterprises)?  R.E. Robinson November 2008