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Not everyone’s an academic – Grade 9 certificate could be the answer to our skills shortage

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

The current school curriculum does not prepare learners for a career. A General Education Certificate could offer a solution for South Africa’s growing youth unemployment.

South Africa is the most unequal society in the world with 54% of our 10 million young people unemployed and trapped in the cycle of poverty. That is why we should all work harder to find new solutions to educate the children of the poor. For this we require a new school curriculum.

Over the past week there has been a flood of criticism in the mainstream as well as social media from individuals who have expressed their concern about the plan of the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) to institute a General Education Certificate (GEC) to be awarded at the end of Grade 9 from 2020.

Jobless undergraduates

Some of the criticism is that the quality of education will deteriorate if learners are allowed to leave the system in Grade 9. Another criticism is that many lazy learners will decide to end their school careers in Grade 9. The large number of jobless graduates is mentioned as the reason why learners should not leave school in Grade 9. If graduates cannot get jobs, what are the chances for a grade 9 learner, is the argument.

The DBE is thus concerned over reports that the GEC will be seen as a chance to leave the school system at the end of Grade 9. I am inclined to agree with the education department. The GEC can, if it is implemented correctly, actually have the opposite effect and can serve as countermeasure for unemployment, if applied correctly. Allow me to mention a few examples.

Young entrepreneurs

A few days ago, I phoned the local plumber to repair a tap in my bathroom. When the young man arrived, he greeted my wife spontaneously: “Hello, Miss.” I realised immediately that he was one of her former learners. He had not completed matric because he left the school after Grade 9. Even though he was a dropout, John today has his own successful business.

I wanted to install a security system at my house and a friend referred me to Brandon.

Hello, Sir,” was his friendly greeting. I recognised him vaguely. “Grade 9, 1993 at Weltevrede Secondary,” he reminded me. Brandon’s security company is a flourishing business with a number of upmarket homes on his books.

During the recent drought we wanted to help save water. I phoned the local hardware shop who put me through to Jason. This 22-year-old entrepreneur had seen the gap in the market and started his own business installing JoJo tanks at homes. His clients buy the supplies at the shop and in turn they refer their clients to him. He ensures that the tanks collect all the grey and rainwater from where it is pumped to the garden and toilets.

I can supply more such examples. These young entrepreneurs have created careers for themselves. No school curriculum could have prepared them for their careers. Today they are successful businessmen, not thanks to the education system, but in spite of it. This forces us to reflect honestly on what learners learn at school.

Not everyone is academic

According to Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, the framework of this certificate will be completed in July 2020. The GEC is based on the international educational principle that not all people are academically inclined to follow a graduate course at university. Some individuals have technical and practical skills and would do better in a career-oriented curriculum. One of the reasons so many graduates are unemployed is because, in my opinion, they complete a graduate course which offers few career opportunities. A BA degree in drama can only offer jobs to a limited number of graduates. I see annually how many of these students register for an education diploma at the Faculty of Education.

Occupational education

Motshekga says the framework for the GEC has been developed and the technical occupational subjects have already been packaged as a curriculum. Currently, assessment methods are being investigated before being referred to education authority Umalusi for approval. This provides me with the necessary assurance because Umalusi’s job is to supervise the quality assurance of the school system. The plan is to channel more learners to the technical occupational education in the school system and to provide 10,000 artisans to the labour market.

Proof that these processes do not take place in isolation is that the department has already launched new subjects like technical mathematics and technical science which will play a relevant and supporting role for learners who want to specialise in these study areas.

When I analysed the matric results earlier this year, I wrote about the first examinations in these subjects which had been written last year. The GEC is also not a new idea as discussion had already started in January.

The department is of the opinion – and I support the idea – that the GEC will address the problem of the hundreds of thousands of learners who leave the education system each year without a qualification. More than half the learners who continue past Grade 9 never reach matric, mainly because the current school system is academically oriented, which thousands of learners are not interested in and which does not prepare them for the world of work.

The purpose of the GEC is to deliver tangible proof that learners have acquired a certain set of skills over the last 10 years of their education. Learners can then decide if they want further training, for example at a vocational training college (TVET college).

Viable option

The idea is thus not that Grade 9 be considered an exit level at school; not all children require matric. I agree with Professor Elda de Waal that Grade 9 must not be seen as the child’s end goal, but rather as an opportunity to study further. But there is a condition: if learners in Grade 9 leave school, there must be enough vocational colleges available so that the young entrepreneurs who want to be trained as artisans can be accommodated. It should be as normal for the technical learner to walk into a TVET college after Grade 9 as it is normal for the academic learner to walk into the Grade 10 class.

It requires a sophisticated infrastructure, which I’m afraid to say, is not in place yet. Further, it will require much awareness and marketing by the department before parents make the paradigm shift away from the traditional university. Here lies much work for the education department before the good and noble aim of vocational education will become a viable option.

Employability

A second condition to this ambitious plan is that learners must be employable at the end of their school career, whether it be Grade 9 or Grade 12. Young people must undergo training in the field in which they are interested, and obtain a certificate. In this way the General Education Certificate (GEC) will prove that the learner was not only trained in a specific field, but will also serve as an accredited qualification proving that the learner has a skill set which allows him or her to make a contribution to the economy of our country.

Not all learners have to become medical doctors: we also need artisans and technicians to build the hospitals. DM

Professor Michael le Cordeur is head of the Department of Curriculum Studies in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.

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