The fourth industrial revolution is a reminder that "traditional" models of doing business will soon cease to exist, and business and policymakers must respond appropriately to a changing marketplace.
But it follows that if the skills required for industry are evolving, then education models and methods should evolve as well.
The National Curriculum Statement (NCS) is a policy framework for learning and teaching in SA. An excerpt from the Department of Basic Education describes it as follows:
The NCS curriculum aims to ensure that children acquire and apply knowledge and skills in ways that are meaningful to their own lives. In this regard, the curriculum promotes knowledge in local contexts, while being sensitive to global imperatives.
Of material interest is that the NCS should equip learners with skills and knowledge that are relevant locally and globally.
To do that, the curriculum policy must:
1) anchor around core skills and competencies that are "time agnostic" – that is, critical skills like mathematics that will remain relevant, irrespective of how the global landscape evolves; while also providing crucial supplementary components applicable to the changing global landscape;
2) align itself to the national economic growth and skills agenda.
Core and supplementary curriculum
There is broad literature suggesting that a core component of the curriculum should be characterised by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); while some recent literature has proposed the inclusion of Art, to form STEAM.
But what are Art, Engineering and Technology? These areas are too broad to form the foundational components of a curriculum, yet they are incredibly important. In my view, these three (TEA) contextualise the core principles formed in maths and science, and therefore play a supplementary role to the core curriculum.
A decreasing number of learners have been taking maths and science, with a whopping 75 000 fewer matrics writing these exams in 2017 than in 2016.
The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessed mathematics and science knowledge at Grade 9 level and found that South Africa ranked 38 out of 39 countries and 39 out of 39 for maths and science respectively. At Grade 5 level, the country ranked 47 out of 48 countries for mathematics.
So, with a combination of declining exam sitting as well as dismal performance in the subjects, the idea of a collapsing "core" can no longer be ignored, nor can we afford to continue dropping minimum pass marks for the sake of having fewer academic exclusions and/or failures.
It is hard to imagine progress in the teaching and learning of engineering as an academic discipline before foundational maths and science hold as a core learning discipline for the learners. The same would apply for computer science and coding. If the core cannot hold, then engineering principles would be even harder to grasp for the learners in question.
The government, through its Naledi Schools Initiative, has attempted to incentivise top-performing maths and science schools with additional infrastructure and financial support. In addition to this, it would be interesting to observe the impact on performance if government could open regional maths and science centres that run until late in the evening daily. This would enable learners to receive additional maths and science support, much as they would if they were visiting a library.
An organisation like CASME (Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education), whose mission is to provide teacher professional development and improve learning outcomes in under-resourced and rural schools in the country, should inspire government to invest in such learner support centres.
Alignment to national growth agenda
We have seen how the manufacturing value added to GDP has declined over the years, signalling declined competitiveness of the sector. It also holds true that a thriving manufacturing industry is good for the improvement of the population's living standards, as well as being positive for employment.
It is therefore incumbent on policy makers to align policies on revitalising manufacturing to an investment in education for the skills that will support that growth.
The sectors that can lead to a successful bootstrapping out of the current economic low growth trap are agriculture, agribusiness and chemicals, and petrochemicals and automotive sectors.
These are sectors where South Africa can still achieve a comparative advantage globally, thereby allowing the country to compete effectively.
The education cum economic growth strategy should therefore entail more material investment in agri-colleges, security of water sources (read: desalination), high-value agri crop support, targeted chemical and petrochemical engineers scholarship and bursary programmes, and IT and computer coding resource centres.
These can then be looked at in context, regarding how they will coherently support the economic growth agenda, as well as how they will support the employment creation ambitions of the country, while remaining competitive through the fourth industrial revolution.
Sifiso Skenjana is founder and financial economist at AFRA Consultants. He specialises in economic policy research, investment strategy and advisory services. He is currently pursuing his PhD. Views expressed are his own.
Follow him on Twitter: @sifiso_skenjana