President Nelson Mandela sees education as the driving force behind a new more equal South Africa. Frances Mac Gregor describe the legacy of apartheid and assess the country's chances of success.
From January next year South African pupils will learn, in very different ways, very different things about the world they live in. The syllabus of every school subject has been transformed during an extraordinary five-week exercise, completed on October 7, involving more than 200 teachers, students, academics and civil servants.
Flying around the country and meeting in groups of eight, the educationists working temporarily for the Curriculum Revision Project "cleaned" curricula of all racist, sexist, outdated or culturally offensive material, and consolidated the curricula of 14 former ethnically-based education departments into the first single national school syllabus.
As a result South African history will no longer begin in 1652, with the arrival of whites in the Cape, but way before that. African schools can continue offering gardening as a subject, but understanding nature rather than praying to God will be emphasised as the reason for gardening success.
Ballet and Spanish will make space for African dance. Multilingual lessons and multi-faith schools will be encouraged. Teachers will have choices within curricula, and examinations will be adapted accordingly.
The Curriculum Revision Project was proposed by the National Education and Training Forum in June this year to embark on short-term curriculum reform.
The proposal, accepted by the new government and given the go-ahead in late August, was for 11 "field" committees that would investigate different subject groupings, and three "phase" committees which would look at the junior primary, senior primary and secondary school levels. The field committees broke into 20 subject committees.
Thus began the most participative and consultative project in the country's educational history. Each committee comprised eight people, one each from four teacher organisations, two student organisations, the National Education Conference and the civil service.
"The domination of non-state people was a dramatic breakthrough," says Mr Hindle, who was coordinator and representative of the South African Democratic Teachers Union. "Teachers and students were very much involved. It was a new style of operation in terms of curriculum development."
Concerns that some members, particularly the students, might be intimidated by the committee experts turned out to be unfounded. "Because it was a short-term, technical process it worked as an important capacity building exercise. You don't have to be a theorist to know what is wrong with a syllabus."
South African citizens were also involved: "The submissions ranged from organisational inputs to a letter from a guy in prison, saying he was planning to write the matriculation examination and wanted to be able to prepare properly for it. Most responses opened with a line about how much people appreciated the opportunity to participate. " The reform proposals were endorsed by the government's committee of heads of education departments on October 17. Broadly, the proposals suggest school curricula which display a far greater degree of integration between subjects. Other dominant elements are more flexibility in curricula and greater powers for teachers to make choices.
In many cases curricula are not being radically changed in content. Rather, they have been "cleansed" of apartheid influence, have become more skills- oriented and are more multi-cultural, emphasising tolerance in a divided and diverse country.
The Project's final task will be to supply all schools with details of the new syllabi and materials that support them. Only after long-term curriculum reform has been completed, probably under the aegis of a National Institute of Curriculum Development, will new text books be published.