Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Standards in Education and Training: The Challenge

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Standards in Education and Training: The Challenge

Article excerpt

Standards in education and training: The challenge

The articles in this Special Issue of Perspectives in Education were originally presented as papers at a conference held by Umalusi in May 2012 on the theme Standards in education and training: The challenge. Umalusi is the Quality Council responsible for setting standards for General and Further Education and Training in South Africa and for assuring their quality. In addition to developing and managing the quality of the sub-framework of qualifications for General and Further Education and Training, Umalusi ensures that quality assurance policies exist and are implemented, and advises the Ministers of Education on matters relating to the qualifications it certifies. Umalusi is currently responsible for the certification of the National Senior Certificate (NSC), which replaced the Senior Certificate in 2008 (this qualification is currently being phased out), the National Certificate Vocational (NCV), which commenced in 2007, and the General Education Training Certificate (GETC).

The perceived challenges referred to in the framing of the conference theme were, firstly, that, in spite of the fact that education standards are a topical issue, there is no common understanding in the South African education community of what is meant by the term 'standards'. Secondly, there are many questions related to the setting and maintenance of standards in a country that is characterised by extreme inequality resulting from its colonial past. Researchers go so far as to say that statistics reflects two distinct systems of education operating side by side, leading to what has been described as a bi-modal distribution of achievement (Fleisch, 2008; Van der Berg, 2007; Spaull, 2013).

The notion of standards is inherently ambiguous (Becher, 1997). In the past, they weregenerallythoughtofasoutcomesofthe process of education but, withtheadvent of written standards, they have become specifications of what should be learned and assessed, open to public scrutiny and, thus, a means of holding both teachers and the education system accountable. In South African schooling, assessment standards were introduced with the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) in 2002. Related accountability measures are the Annual National Assessments (ANAs), which are administered in Grades 1 to 6 and 9 (Department of Basic Education, 2012) and a public examination, the NSC, at the end of Grade 12. One of the many challenges Umalusi confronts is how to foster parity of esteem between the NSC and NCV in a society which has traditionally valued the more academic side of learning, especially in the light of high youth unemployment and South Africa's need for vocational skills.

Professor Catherine Snowfrom the USA and Professor Michael Young from the UK were among the keynote speakers at the conference; they addressed the question of standards in relation to their own countries, drawing comparisons with South Africa where appropriate. In the case of the UK, until the 1970s, standards were normative. High standards were achieved by means of selective education; limits were placed on the numbers of students achieving high grades in examinations in order to maintain quality, and there was a largely tacit agreement as to what constituted these standards, though, according to Young, this was always open to debate. From the 1970s onwards this approach to standards was called into question since it failed to address the needs of the majority of students in an increasingly diverse education system. The UK and the USA are characterised by relatively high levels of inequality in education, and in both countries written standards were introduced with the purpose of making the outcomes of education more explicit and, in theory, achievable by a wider range of students. As Snow points out in her paper, this has the potential to create 'a vision of excellence ... a shared view of what children should learn and how teachers should teach, and of guiding the distribution of resources to schools in need'. …

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