A FIASCO IN LEARNING: Outcomes-Based Education In South African Corporate Risk Management Training

Originally Published in the Spring 2020 Quality Management Forum
By Vittorio Andrea Bollo

It is stated that education should be aimed at creating teaching and learning environments that bring about desired changes in a learner, whether that be regarding acquired knowledge, improved skills, or to positively influence the learner’s attitudes and values (Malan, 2000, p. 22). Those imperatives of knowledge acquisition, improved skills, or the positive reinforcement of learner attitudes and values, are as relevant to adult-based learning and development as they are to basic education.

Within that context, and for the purpose of this paper, adult learning and education (ALE) will be based on the definition by UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning (UILL), which states that ALE encompasses “all formal, non-formal, and informal or incidental learning and continuing education (both general and vocational, and both theoretical and practical) undertaken by adults“ (Walters, 2018, p. 148). More specifically, this paper will focus on my experience with training interventions in the occupational risk management field at the corporate level in South Africa, with a specific emphasis on outcomes-based education (OBE).

William Spady, the so-called “father” of OBE, defined OBE as an education system based on outcomes that are “clear learning results that we want students to demonstrate at the end of significant learning experiences” (Spady 1994, p.1). OBE was at the forefront of post-apartheid South Africa’s education policy and is critical to discourse and analysis of ALE and higher education generally in that country. It was considered one of the leading factors necessary to address the country’s crippling unemployment rates at the end of the 20th century (Radcliffe, 2016).

This paper will assess OBE’s performance generally in South African education and specifically with regard to its impact on ALE, with a particular focus on corporate-level, risk-focused training and development. The sober conclusion of this article will be that OBE has been an unmitigated fiasco in South African education, including at the ALE/ corporate training level.

Context: OBE in South Africa

Prior to the new, post-apartheid dispensation in 1994, South African education was profoundly influenced by apartheid ideology, including segregation and inferior schooling for non-white children. This created what Maile (2011) labeled as “black intellectual underdevelopment” (Schmidt, 2017, p.370). The post-1994 government sought a redress of these historical inequities in education. OBE was to provide the much-needed platform for an equitable education system and Curriculum 2005 provided the country its formal educational focus.

Curriculum 2005 would be grounded on OBE’s two “pillars” of knowledge: (1) competency-based education, and (2) mastery learning, with formative and summative assessments ensuring that students meet outlined outcomes. Ongoing remediation for any learner and a focus on group learning became normative throughout South African classrooms (Schmidt, 2017, p. 372).

OBE in Corporate Training and Development
Figure 1 - The NQF system in South Africa

Training and development at the corporate level was not immune from OBE. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) was set up to oversee all further development and training in the country with the implementation of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Development of the lifelong learner and the socio-economic development of the nation were its principal missions. The NQF “journey” for a learner began at school in Grade 9 at NQF level 1, through which the learner could then proceed to Matric (Grade 12) at NQF level 4, and on to higher education from NQF level 5 (basic certificate), through to NQF level 6 (two-year diploma), NQF level 7 (3-year degree), NQF level 8 (a degree at honors level), NQF level 9 (Master’s), and finally NQF level 10 (Ph.D.). A simplified illustration of the somewhat byzantine NQF system used in South Africa can be seen in Figure 1.

In order to accomplish SAQA’s objectives, a number of Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) were established, each mandated for a specific sector or group of sectors within the South African economy (Department of Labour 2006, pp. 4-5). Each SETA would generate its own unit standards comprising applicable learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and sub-fields of learning. Achieving the set standard signified “competency,” while failing to achieve the standard implied a learner was “not yet competent,” to be followed by remedial intervention (Malan 2000, p. 24). Each unit standard (US) would award a certain number of credits upon successful completion (“competency”) of the given US, which in turn could be used by a learner towards a certificate or degree of higher learning.

OBE’s Failure in South African Education

To state that OBE has been an abject failure in South Africa’s education system is an understatement. It is worth noting that South Africa spends more on education than any other country in Africa—20% of its budget, or 6.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) (Nkosi, 2016). Yet South Africa has consistently performed dismally in international surveys. For example, the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index for 2012–2013 ranked South Africa’s overall education system at 140 out of 144 countries, with its math and science education at 143 out of 144. (Holborn, 2013).
Figure 2. South Africa’s educational systems compared to those of other countries

Other surveys have shown South Africa ranking even worse than poorer countries, including Eswatini, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe (Radcliffe, 2016) The Economist stated it bluntly: South Africa simply has one of the worst education systems in the world. That in turn has exacerbated the country’s high unemployment rate and high crime rate. A bureaucratic and malfunctioning OBE system was viewed as one of the leading causes of the country’s poor education system (The Economist, 2017). Figure 2 below shows the publication’s point regarding South Africa’s poor showing when compared to the education systems of other countries.

Most alarming was the perilous state of basic reading skills of South African students. The 2016 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) report found that 78% of fourth graders tested in South Africa were functionally illiterate (Jansen, 2017). ‘“The reading crisis is deeper than we thought,” notes Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University in reference to the fact than an earlier and less robust study put the figure at 58% of children who could not “read for meaning” (Jansen, 2017, page 1).

The OBE-focused Curriculum 2005 was deemed the culprit. It was considered too bureaucracy-driven, created an inflexible (regulated) framework, and under-specified required content (as per Rensburg 2000 in Schmidt 2017, p. 372). It was also blamed for sidelining teachers, while ensuring that technocrats, including foreign consultants, “overpowered the discussion at the expense of local practitioners” (Schmidt, 2017, p. 373). Teacher unions also complained about the heavy workload imposed upon teachers by the OBE curriculum (The South African 2010), not to mention laborious administrative tasks and documentation that required hours to complete, even in the poorest schools (Rice, 2010). Teacher unions also criticized the high number of “failed schools” in the country, the failures of which were due to a host of different factors, many of them direct or indirect results of OBE-related dogma and principles, as can be seen in Table 1 by Spaull (2012).

Spady himself was quick to distance from the South African OBE experiment, claiming that the principles used in Curriculum 2005 weren’t even outcomes-based and, therefore, that it couldn’t be considered an OBE system (Spady, 2008, p. 6). For someone who has often extolled the diversity of OBE, his volte-face on South Africa’s OBE experiment is telling but hardly helpful.

By 2010, changes to the education curriculum were announced by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, to be replaced by a new curriculum, Schooling 2025. It was openly acknowledged that the new curriculum would replace the highly contentious OBE system (The South African, 2010). The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) issued a statement explaining that the new curriculum would take them back to the basics by emphasizing literacy and numeracy (The South African, 2010).

Positive changes in education cannot come fast enough for a country that has such a high unemployment rate. The country ranks consistently in the top 10 of countries in the world with the highest unemployment rates (Business Tech, 2015). Since the advent of the new democratic dispensation in 1994, South Africa has consistently had an official unemployment rate in the mid-20 percent range, as can be seen in Figure 3 below, as projected to 2019.
Table 1. Dysfunctional schools vs. functional schools
(75% of schools)
(25% of schools)
Weak accountability Strong accountability
Incompetent school management Good school management
Lack of culture of learning, discipline, and order Culture of learning, discipline, and order
Inadequate LTSM Adequate LTSM
Weak teacher content knowledge Adequate teacher content
High teacher absenteeism (1 month/year) Low teacher absenteeism (2 weeks/year)
Slow curriculum coverage, little homework or testing Covers the curriculum, weekly homework, frequent testing
High repetition and dropout (Grades 10 through 12) Low repetition and dropout (Grades 10 through 12)
Extremely weak learning: most students fail standardized tests Adequate learner performance (primary and matric)
Figure 3. South African Unemployment

OBE’s Failure in Corporate Development: Observations and Anecdotal Evidence

In my opinion, OBE principles have failed corporate training in three distinct areas: (1) presumptions and assumptions, (2) inputs and bureaucracy, and (3) dire limitations on excellence in training.

With regard to presumptions and assumptions, OBE is innately presumptuous. For example, Spady offers “architecture as analogy” when he waxes lyrical about how OBE builds “cathedrals” (by ensuring “healthy, informed, contributing human beings”), rather than only building “walls” (i.e. developing “broad knowledge and high-level competences”) or using “bricks” (with a “collection of disconnected facts and micro skills”) (Spady 1994, p. 5). The analogy is inherently facile— why should developing “healthy and informed human beings” be the prerogative solely of OBE? Traditional Socratic teaching has accomplished that for centuries.

Furthermore, OBE’s obsession with specific outcomes are not readily applicable to most corporate-level training. OBE principles can indeed be used for functional, “technical” skills development, such as forklift driver training or how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) in a chemicals factory. However, they are of little use when applied to “non-technical” learning in operational risk management training courses, such as the non-linear, analytical learning required for environmental management systems or strategic risk planning.

As shown above, OBE’s collapse in South Africa’s schooling system has been blamed in part due to the lack of teacher inputs and far too much bureaucracy. Ditto for the corporate training and development field. The SAQA/SETA/unit standards regime imposed on corporate training had limited input by those in the corporate or industrial sectors. Instead, unit standards were compiled mostly by academics and bureaucrats within the various SETAs, often with glaring omissions in required standards.

That meant that I, in my capacity as a research and development specialist (working in the largest risk management consultancy in the southern hemisphere), had to contend with compiling an environmental management system course using scant reference to climate change or carbon management or even sustainability, not to mention having no directly applicable unit standards from which to benchmark content on corporate governance, even from the financial or services SETAs.

Not only was I resentful, but complaints from fellow corporate training colleagues regarding the onerous amount of time needed to complete SETA-mandated paperwork for any accredited course, were legion. It was further contended that heavy emphasis on group work, which is the lynchpin of OBE logic, can be highly contentious in a corporate training environment and has caused innumerable problems with regard to learner interest, inter-learner relationships, a sense of fairness, and even discipline within a given class.

OBE-imposed rigors repeatedly curtailed excellence. Highly contentious (and an abject failure, in my experience) was OBE’s strict insistence on differentiating assessed performance only as being either “competent” or “not yet competent.” Such an approach kills excellence in any given academic context. What is the difference to learners if all they can attain is “competency” like every other “competent” learner? Striving for mere competency is not the same as striving for excellence.

My insistence on the introduction of “summa cum laude,” “cum laude,” and “excellence” certificates in one leading risk management course (NOSA’s SAMTRAC course, the leading short-term occupational risk management training course in the country) quickly proved immensely popular among students, even if the initiative was not aligned to OBE principles. As such, that meritocratic initiative was ignored outright by the relevant SETA—the Health and Welfare SETA.


It has been widely noted that a skills shortage has been a major factor in South Africa’s extremely high unemployment levels (Allais, 2014, p. 13). A white paper on Post School Education and Training, released in January 2014, articulated a need for activist learning (i.e. non-OBE) principles for the “post school sector” (Kgobe & Baatjes, 2014, pp. 2–3). I contend that the rigidity and bureaucracy imposed by OBE on corporate-level training has impaired rather than assisted skills development in the country, not to mention that it has done very little to improve the country’s unacceptably high unemployment rates.

All of this has only been exacerbated in a country in which “the value of education has been lost,” as per Jonathan Jansen, the rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (Holborn, 2013), and in which South Africans spend twice as much on chocolate each year as they do on books (Aichison, 2018).

South Africa continues to grapple with shocking basic reading and numeracy levels, and OBE has done nothing to abate that. South Africa’s corporations and industry continue to grapple with critical skills shortages across most sectors. OBE has done nothing to abate that either. OBE had its chance in basic education and failed. But OBE continues its stranglehold on ALE, including accredited corporate and industrial training. This is unfortunate and must be remedied if South Africa is to ever overcome its skills shortage, not to mention provide a better life and economic opportunities for a significant part of its citizenry.

A modern-focused reversion to a flexible education system that awards excellence rather than mere competency based on rigid criteria is needed now to correct a post-apartheid education strategy that has failed the country’s children and adults miserably. The Rainbow Nation deserves better than OBE.

About the author
Vittorio Andrea Bollo

Vittorio Andrea Bollo received his LL.B in Law and Politics at the University of Birmingham in England, and his masters in International Environmental Law at the University of Calgary in Canada. He was a specialist in occupational health and safety, risk management, corporate governance, and sustainability. He worked in corporate training starting in the late 1990s. Mr. Bollo currently resides in Europe.


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Posted by Jerry Rice on Aug 9, 2020 12:54 PM America/Chicago


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