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South Africa

Maverick Citizen OP-ED

Let’s get behind the General Education Certificate — and make it work

Students listen as teacher Nolundi Mbaba concludes her English lesson. She was one of the first teachers from the school to be part of the SII teacher training programme. 15 January 2019. Photo: Christi Nortier

Last week’s announcement of the field-testing of a General Education Certificate (GEC) at the end of Grade 9 caused a significant public uproar, but much of this outrage is disconnected from the realities of South Africa’s education system.

Currently, half of all children who start school make it to matric — the majority drop out in Grade 10 and 11 after repeating multiple grades. Grade 9 marks the end of compulsory schooling; if done right, formalising this point in a learner’s educational journey could be an important mechanism to improve outcomes for young people — and in the long run, improve the quality of the overall education system. Here are five opportunities the GEC could unlock, and what we need to do to make them work:

It would create a mechanism for proper assessment of Grade 9 learners’ core skills, giving them new signalling tools to the labour market.

According to a recent paper by education economist Professor Servaas van der Berg and colleagues, an estimated 300,000 young people leave the schooling system each year. These early school leavers mostly leave between Grade 10 and 12 — without any formal qualification to show for their many years in the education system. According to one study, only 1% of young people that leave school without matric ever go on to complete another formal qualification (at a TVET or other college).

While the GEC is not positioned primarily as a school-leaving certificate, the reality is that many young people will still leave the school system between Grade 10 and 12 — having a formal certificate may help them signal their skills to the labour market.

To make the GEC function, however, there remains significant work that needs to be done to reorient South Africa’s employers. For example, many low-skill jobs — such as shelf-packing — require matric as an entry point even if there is no significant correlation between the skills needed for the job and a matric certificate.

For the GEC to be impactful, we, therefore, need to get business to reimagine its needs and match them more effectively with young people.

We can learn how to do this from organisations such as Harambee, which have been working with employers to find better ways of matching suitable candidates to jobs based on real skills and learning potential, rather than just specified education levels.

It would enable the FET system to work better.

It is important to note that the GEC is not being introduced as a standalone solution to all our educational woes. It is a stepping stone towards the introduction of a three-stream system for the Further Education and Training (FET) levels of schooling.

These three streams — academic, technical-vocational and technical-occupational — aim to create a schooling system that can meet the needs of the full population of learners, and our economy. There is much to debate in this approach, but a certificate at Grade 9 makes sense as a key step towards making a wider range of options available to young people.

What we need to do, however, is ensure that the options being presented are, in fact, real and of good quality. In 2018 the first cohort of matriculants wrote technical subjects and some were shocked to find that despite distinctions, they could not enroll in universities due to poor articulation of the new subjects into the higher-education landscape.

If the GEC is to be of real value, we need to fix the links between basic and further education and ensure that all three streams are valued by society and employers, and are offering a clear pathway towards employment opportunities for young people. We need to ensure more effective articulation of the entire post-secondary education system and improve the quality of TVET Colleges.

It may make it easier to get TVET colleges to accept young people with less than matric.

In theory, the TVET College system has two entry points for learners who already leave school after Grade 9 — the N1 and the NC(V)2. These levels are each equivalent to a Grade 10 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). However, few young people that leave school without a matric are able to actually access TVET colleges. According to the 2014 General Household Survey, only 5% of 15-24-year-olds with a Grade 9, and who had left school, were enrolled in a public TVET College.

TVET colleges report selecting for students with a matric in order to ensure a standard level of literacy and numeracy among successful candidates, so a quality set of standardised exams at the end of Grade 9 could make it easier for TVET colleges to open options for those without a matric.

It may create a more real and imminent sense of possibility for young people.

At the moment, young people are given little in the way of practical and navigational education and career guidance. They also report that their parents and communities only place value on a university education and that studying at TVETs is viewed as a failure. However, many young people are crying out for more information and transparency to other routes of post-school training.

We can make the GEC work to enable real options, only if we provide quality navigational career guidance to learners at the start of their high-school journey. If we can get this right, we might transform a generation who would have seen themselves as “drop-outs” into achievers, with a real sense of their options and possibilities for next steps on a lattice of opportunities.

It presents a useful opportunity to assess the quality of the education system.

Currently, the only standardised assessment of quality across every single school in South Africa is the National Senior Certificate (matric) exam. The GEC represents an opportunity for a second, earlier, metric by which we can measure the quality of our education system. The GEC is the first step towards planned systemic quality assessments at Grades 3, 6, and 9, which will allow us to identify failing schools and learners earlier and provide the necessary support to make sure things improve.

Imagine if the whole country got as worked up about Grade 3 results as matric results! If we could get these measures implemented and get the data into the hands of parents, teachers and those working to improve schools, we may galvanise new attention and action to improve quality throughout the schooling system.

Amid our education crisis, many people are searching for large-scale interventions that can change the trajectory of the whole system at once. But this is not how real reform happens.

Rather, it will be the coming together of some key initiatives — such as a radical commitment to basic literacy and numeracy, the delivery of accelerated catch-up programmes, more power in the hands of parents to hold schools accountable for quality teaching, and new quality measures throughout the system.

The GEC fits into this picture as a crucial piece of a much bigger puzzle — which could open significant positive pathways for the majority of young people. DM

Janet Jobson is the Deputy CEO of the DG Murray Trust (, and Kristal Duncan is the Project Lead for Youth Capital (


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