What is the relationship between the NQF, learning programme development and delivery and outcomes-based education?

Qualifications and standards registered on the NQF are described in terms of the learning outcomes that the qualifying learner is expected to have demonstrated. Hence there is an underlying commitment to a sys-tem of education and training that is organised around the notion of learning outcomes.
More detailed discussion of the reasons for deciding on this approach are set out in the SAQA publication The NQF An Overview. In short however, the NQF approach with its commitment to outcomes-based education and training is the means that South Africa has chosen to bring about systemic change in the nature of the education and training system – to transform the manner in which it works as a system, how it is organised and the vision that drives participants within the system as they perform their own particular roles and functions within that system. There is an historical imperative in the fragmentation of our society, to focus on what it is that a learner knows and can do rather than where the learner did his or her studying. Furthermore in order to achieve integration and coherence within the system so that access and portability can become a reality, it is necessary to clearly articulate the outcomes of learning achievements.
When a society finds itself lagging behind other countries in the global market for example, politicians start to use education reform as a platform for canvassing votes, questioning the validity of what is taught and how it is taught in an effort to improve the country’s economic or social situation. Furthermore, when a new government is elected to power inevitably they engage in so-called education reform. They institute change in the content of the curriculum, a change in the assessment system, the advocacy of new ways of ‘doing things’ in the classroom i.e. they try and find the perfect curriculum and the perfect way of delivering that curriculum. In other words, they institute curriculum reform. These reforms then become the focus of criticism from opposition politicians and the cycle begins again. In this process, there is an assumption that is made, particularly by the education sector of society, that necessary systemic change is equivalent to curriculum change. In the approach described, attention is not given to systemic change
i.e. the way in which the education and training is organised and managed, but rather to how the curriculum is delivered.
The word outcomes suggests a relationship with outcomes-based education, a philosophy expounded primarily by Spady. Confusion arises because out-comes-based education as discussed by Spady incorporates both ideas i.e. systemic change and curriculum change. To illustrate this, in answer to the question ‘What does the term “Outcomes-based Education” really mean?’, Spady responds as follows:

Outcomes-based education means clearly focussing and organising everything in an educational system around what

is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experiences. This means starting with a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organising curriculum, instruction, and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens.
The fact that curriculum change i.e. curriculum, instruction, and assessment, is part of systemic change i.e. clearly focussing and organising everything in an educational system, is made clear in this extract. However this distinction is not always clear in discussions in the South African context.
Spady has made the point that outcomes-based education is not about curriculum change (Spady 1999). It is about changing the nature of how the education system works – the guiding vision, a set of principles and guidelines that frame the education and training activities that take place within a system. If one accepts that outcomes-based education is about systemic change, then there is likely to be a dimension that challenges current practices of curriculum development and delivery. However the point needs to be emphasised: outcomes-based education is primarily about systemic change and not curriculum change. The NQF then in its commitment to a system of education and training that is organised around the notion of learning outcomes, is about systemic change.
Spady also states that outcomes-based education is about a consistent, focussed, systematic, creative implementation of four principles:

  • • A clarity of focus on the learning outcomes that ultimately students need to demonstrate; Spady calls these complex role performance abilities and the corresponding South African conception could possibly be the critical cross-field education and training outcomes. Spady’s mapping of SAQA’s critical cross-field outcomes to his complex role performance abilities is attached as Appendix A.
  • • The design-down/build-back approach to building the curriculum; the curriculum design starts with the abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes that one ultimately wants students to demonstrate and ensures that the assessment is focussed on what the learner has achieved in relation to these learning outcomes rather than focussed on what was presented in the course of delivery.
  • • High expectations; the expectation must be that learners are able to achieve these outcomes and therefore it is necessary for those who work in the system to behave and structure what they do in working with learners, in such a way that they are enabled to achieve these outcomes;
  • • Expanded opportunity; there is a necessity to move beyond the rigid blocks we have created around education e.g. blocks of time and the traditional organisation of learning institutions. (Spady, 1999)

In the NSB regulations, outcomes are defined as the contextually demonstrated end products of the learning process. Hence in the NQF paradigm, the successful planning and delivery of a learning programme is only possible when the desired endpoint or endpoints are clear i.e. the desired learning outcomes. There are choices to be made within the learning programme design and development in respect of methodology, assessment, technological resources to be used etc. Within an outcomes-based system, these choices need to be governed by the extent to which a particular decision contributes ultimately to the achievement of the desired learning outcomes, be they specific or critical outcomes.


One could argue that any education and training system exists on a number of levels and it would be appropriate at this stage to distinguish three them:


1 The principles governing the system organisation i.e. the value drivers in a system;
2 The principles of pedagogy or the educational philosophy that drives learning programme design, delivery and assessment;
3 Specific learning programme delivery or implementation – pedagogy in the classroom.

Some would argue that (2) should precede (1). In the South African context however, in 1994 the democratic government faced substantial problems in education and training at the systemic level. These problems were so deep-rooted and wide-spread in the system from schooling through to higher education and training that they impacted negatively on actual teaching practice and student learning. Hence in the South African scenario, the most pressing need for reform was at the systemic level. This is a pre-requisite for deeper engagement with pedagogy and teaching practices. Hence in order to address the fundamental problems in our system of relevance, integration and coherence, access, articulation, progression and portability, credibility and legitimacy, in a transparent way for all users of the system, the decision was taken to establish a qualifications framework i.e. a set of principles and guidelines by which records of learner achievement are registered to enable recognition of acquired skills and knowledge; the records reflect the required outcomes of the learning process. Hence at the systems organisational level, the NQF determines that a system organised around the notion of learning outcomes will drive education and training in South Africa.
The next stage of concern for those responsible for ensuring that the education and training system delivers appropriately, is the area of education management and teaching practice. This naturally involves engaging with the pedagogy of outcomes-based education. At this level it is likely that there will be disagreement among practitioners; some will support the educational philosophy associated with outcomes-based education and the associated teaching strategies while others will deny its effectiveness. This kind of debate is essential in that practitioners are forced to consider the effectiveness of their own practice in relation to different views. However debates at this level must distinguish between outcomes-based education as a driver in systemic reform i.e. transformation, and outcomes-based education as an educational philosophy that governs classroom activity.
At the third level, consideration is focused on the implementation of particular learning programmes within the system. Clearly if the practical arrangements for implementation have not addressed all aspects adequately

e.g. teacher training, support material, it is illogical to claim that the role of outcomes-based education in systemic transformation is at fault; or the educational principles expounded by proponents of outcomes-based education are invalid. Prof. Jonathan Jansen has convincingly argued that implementation issues, which are not necessarily related to philosophical issues, are at the heart of the success of delivery in an education and training system.
The NQF’s alignment then with outcomes-based education is at the systems organisation level. The NQF philosophy indicates that decisions in respect of learning programme design, development, delivery and assessment need to consider constantly the learning outcomes that learners need to demonstrate. Decisions should not be governed by the input that facilitators can make to the process e.g. special areas of interest, particular attitudes. This is especially true in the design of assessment processes. It can be convincingly argued that good facilitators of learning and curriculum developers have always done that – a Janus-faced approach of looking at what the desired learning outcomes are and developing learning programmes in accordance with the available resources thereby ensuring the balance between inputs and outcomes. This cannot be argued as convincingly for assessment practices and this issue will be discussed in more detail later.
There is a need for practitioners to accept that there are assumptions within our systemic structures that may be problematic and ought to be changed e.g. time-based learning programmes rather than learning programmes focused on outcomes; recognising and valuing formal learning within institutions above learning gained in the workplace; assessment models that ignore skills other than reading and writing. The skill of a true educator is the ability to identify the problematic assumptions and develop positive and creative ways of challenging the structures and changing their influence on learners so that they are in a better position to deal with the demands of the real world; that they have education for employability i.e. the ability to adapt acquired skills to new working environments (those ultimate learning outcomes that we would like all learners to demonstrate) and not simply education for employment i.e. the ability to do a specific job. The principles of expanded opportunity and high expectation are particularly relevant.
The danger that threatens the system is that outcomes-based education is perceived as a panacea for all ills in the South African education and training system. This is clearly not the case. The NQF has been created to address specific systemic features, namely a system that created and perpetuated inequity through inappropriate social uses of qualifications, that permitted the delivery of education and training that lacked quality and that prevented adequate participation in education and training decision-making by important stakeholders. The NQF is not a curriculum framework and hence its primary focus is not how the outcomes are achieved. Its primary focus however does include what it is that curricula or more specifically, learning programmes, should aim to achieve – the desired learning outcomes – and the assurance that learners accredited with particular standards and qualifications have demonstrated their ability as specified in the standards and qualifications.
In some cases, people maintain that supporters of the NQF or proponents of outcomes-based education claim that outcomes-based education is a panacea for all ills in education and training. In a country like South Africa with its history of deprivation, the nature of the problems that exist in education and training are multi-faceted, and it would be naïve to contemplate that there is a single solution. The problems are many and the solutions rest in numerous initiatives, arguably the most significant of which is the NQF.