Govern­ment’s plan for a grade 9 gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion cer­tifi­cate is short on de­tail, but ex­perts seem to agree in broad strokes on its po­ten­tial ben­e­fits

Financial Mail - - COVER STORY - Erin Bates

Ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Angie Mot­shekga sparked an outcry last month when she mentioned the planned in­tro­duc­tion of a gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion cer­tifi­cate (GEC) for grade 9 learn­ers. Nomsa Tara­bella-march­esi of the DA likened the plan to “dust­ing off Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd’s ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy” by “for­mal­is­ing grade 9 as one of the exit points” from school.

But the furore sur­round­ing the is­sue would seem to speak more of mis­giv­ings about, and mis­un­der­stand­ings of, SA’S pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, if cer­tain an­a­lysts are to be be­lieved. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Prof Jon­athan Jansen, are highly crit­i­cal of the GEC. In an ar­ti­cle for Vrye Week­blad, he says it could only work in a per­fect world.

Ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, the “GEC is not an in­di­ca­tion of the exit of learn­ers from a learn­ing path­way in schools”. The GEC is in­tended to pro­vide a gauge of grade 9 learn­ers’ skills, which will in­form which of three streams they en­ter: aca­demic, vo­ca­tion­al­tech­ni­cal or vo­ca­tional-oc­cu­pa­tional.

At Unisa last week Mot­shekga said chil­dren “stay in the sys­tem for a solid nine years with­out any for­mal recog­ni­tion of their learn­ing”, which is “the first step that we have to cor­rect”.

“We are not say­ing they must [leave school], but we are say­ing, for the first nine years, let’s recog­nise the end of the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion phase.”

School­ing in SA is com­pul­sory only un­til the age of 15, says Mary Met­calfe, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Uni­ver­sity of Johannesbu­rg. “That’s the op­tion; it’s un­re­lated to a cer­tifi­cate.”

She be­lieves the outcry in­di­cates “gen­eral scep­ti­cism and dis­ap­point­ment about the qual­ity ... in the cur­rent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem”.

Pol­icy an­a­lyst Sara Black at­tributes the noise to “the mis­un­der­stand­ing that some­how this is a ‘low­er­ing of stan­dards’ to al­low stu­dents to leave ear­lier than grade 12, which most peo­ple in­cor­rectly thought was the only exit point for school”.

One con­cern is that with a stan­dard­ised na­tional test more learn­ers could opt to leave school at 15.

But it’s un­likely that the GEC will be­come an exit point for large numbers of learn­ers, ac­cord­ing to Met­calfe and Prof Martin Gustafs­son, of Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity’s Re­search in So­cioe­co­nomic Pol­icy pro­gramme.

“Re­sis­tance to the GEC has largely taken the form of a con­cern that it would ‘dumb down’ the sys­tem by en­cour­ag­ing youths to leave school ear­lier,” he says.

Gustafs­son doesn’t fore­see the GEC di­lut­ing in­ter­est in the ma­tric qual­i­fi­ca­tion, which has been the fo­cal point of ac­count­abil­ity in the sec­ondary school­ing sys­tem for years. How­ever, “in the ab­sence of a GEC, all that youths would ob­tain at the end of grade 9 is the school’s own aca­demic re­port card, based on stan­dards with very lim­ited ex­ter­nal qual­ity con­trols”.

The ex­perts point to other po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of the cer­tifi­cate. Met­calfe, for ex­am­ple, says it is likely to fo­cus at­ten­tion on the qual­ity of teach­ing in the first two years of high school, which is sorely ne­glected at present. “The sys­tem is go­ing to want to in­vest in see­ing those learn­ers do­ing well,” she says.

For Black, a stan­dard­ised cer­tifi­cate — one that is marked and mod­er­ated ex­ter­nally — would al­low the coun­try’s tech­ni­cal & vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion & train­ing (TVET) col­leges to “as­sess stu­dents’ prior knowl­edge and at­tain­ment more ac­cu­rately”.

But all this is not to say there aren’t any red flags. For a start, the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment has yet to pro­vide the finer de­tails about the three streams, the govern­ment’s ca­pac­ity to pro­vide qual­ity train­ing in each, and in­for­ma­tion on the as­sess­ment it­self.

Sev­eral of the an­a­lysts con­ceded there are risks in im­ple­men­ta­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, broad chal­lenges in ed­u­ca­tion — lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy lev­els, dropout rates and ab­sen­teeism among them — de­mand at­ten­tion.

“If there is a con­cern that war­rants care­ful at­ten­tion, it is the con­cern that the GEC would re­sult in a rather dif­fer­ent type of stu­dent en­ter­ing TVET col­leges, one who is younger and with — on av­er­age — lower com­pe­ten­cies,” says Gustafs­son.

More con­tro­ver­sial, for Black, is whether the GEC amounts to a “broader pro­ject to chan­nel stu­dents into more vo­ca­tional, less aca­demic forms of train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion”.

“To chan­nel stu­dents to vo­ca­tional train­ing when they haven’t been given the chance to mas­ter aca­demic work prop­erly is ques­tion­able,” she says.

How­ever, Mot­shekga has sug­gested that learn­ers who take the tech­ni­cal-vo­ca­tional and tech­ni­cal-oc­cu­pa­tional streams could later ap­ply to study at uni­ver­sity.

“That stream al­lows [them] to go to uni­ver­si­ties af­ter com­ple­tion [of vo­ca­tional train­ing in some dis­ci­plines] be­cause there’s recog­ni­tion of those sub­jects by uni­ver­si­ties,” she said last week.

For econ­o­mist Si­fiso Sken­jana, the GEC should be tai­lored to SA’S con­text. “A struc­tural re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the econ­omy and its growth driv­ers is a nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­site for the GEC to have any prospect of ef­fi­ciency.”

Sken­jana fore­sees mass job losses in agri­cul­ture, con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing. Be­cause these sec­tors “would most likely” ab­sorb learn­ers from the GEC streams fo­cused on tech­ni­cal and oc­cu­pa­tional train­ing, he be­lieves this needs to feed into the pol­i­cy­mak­ing process.

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