SA school system faces major shake-up

Mathanzima Mweli
Mathanzima Mweli

South Africa’s state school system is facing a major shake-up, as it seeks to divide pupils into three streams: academic, technical occupational and technical vocational.

In an exclusive interview with City Press this week, Mathanzima Mweli, director-general of the department of basic education, said the pupils would be channelled into one of the three streams based on their strengths and weaknesses.

Those channelled into the technical occupational stream would be able to leave school in matric and head straight for the workplace because they would have acquired skills to make them employable immediately.

The academic stream would remain as it was because the majority of the country’s schools were academic schools.

“As part of the technical occupational stream, we will introduce 26 subjects, which will include spray-painting, panel-beating, hairdressing, woodwork, glasswork, glazing, welding, upholstery, husbandry (farming) and many more,” said Mweli.

“People can laugh at [Julius] Malema because of [his having studied] woodwork, but woodwork can make you a very successful businessman in the furniture business.

“Almost all successful hair salons in this country are run by outsiders (immigrants).”

The technical vocational stream would include subjects such as engineering and technical drawing, which would benefit those pupils wishing to study trades after school, such as boilermaking and fitting and turning.

The department would plan the new system this year and it would kick off in 2017, when it would be piloted in 58 schools countrywide.

Mweli said these schools were already offering the subjects, but only to people with learning disabilities.

“We will introduce these [technical occupational] subjects at Grade 4 level. And we will increase the [number of] schools [offering the new subjects] to hundreds or thousands,” he said.

Mweli said the introduction of the new streams would dramatically reduce the failure, dropout and repetition rates. More often than not, he said, these were as a result of pupils who had been pushed into the academic stream when they should have been channelled elsewhere.

“The international dropout rate is 1%,” said Mweli.

“On the African continent, including the [Southern African Development Community] region, it is about 5%. And in South Africa we are between 15.3% and 20%.

“Not every learner will pass Grade 12 [in the academic stream]. Not every learner has to go to Grade 12. All successful people have not necessarily done Grade 12.”

Pushing all pupils into the academic stream is misplaced and puts pressure on universities, said Mweli, adding the country committed a “scandalous mistake” in 1994 by shutting down technical high schools or reducing their subjects from 16 to just four.

“Many things have been tried, some of which have taken us backwards.”

The second stream would be technical vocational, which would offer 12 subjects.

“These will be introduced in grades 11 and 12 this year,” said Mweli. “Electrical, mechanical and civil engineering will be the core subjects, with each of them having three sub-subjects.

“These kids will end up as boilermakers, fitters and turners, artisans, etc.

“According to the National Development Plan, we need to be producing 30 000 artisans every year by 2030.”

Mweli, who is a walking encyclopaedia about his department, said that when the new system was finalised, the occupational and vocational streams would accommodate about 60% of pupils in the system.

The other 40% of the country’s pupil body would be placed in the academic stream, whose importance, he said, should not be downplayed.

“The National Senior Certificate has a lot of currency, as a research paper at the University of Cape Town has proved: if you have a Grade 12, you have a better chance of getting a job than those who don’t.

“It also found that people who had a matric certificate enjoyed better upward mobility than those who didn’t.”

Mweli, who started his career as a teacher more than 20 years ago, said he was pleased by the dramatic increase in the number of university-entrance passes in 2015. In poor, no-fee schools alone, the number of these passes increased from 16 486 to 23 407.

He said he was worried about the Eastern Cape, which regressed from a 65.4% pass rate in 2014 to 56.8% last year. He blamed a number of factors, including teachers’ unions, poor political leadership, the high turnover of department heads and a lack of infrastructure.

What do you think of the department’s three-stream plan? Is it the answer to our skills and employment problems?

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