Sifiso Skenjana: Why a Grade 9 certificate won't fix SA's massive education problems (and what just might)

Minister Angie Motshekga, while addressing the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (SATDU) national congress, introduced a draft framework that would see grade 9 as one of the exit points in the schooling curriculum.

The framework details that Grade 9 graduands would be eligible to receive a General Education Certificate (GEC), creating a pathway for pupils who would rather go through a technical or vocational training stream, instead of the "academic route" at a university, for example.

The minister, in her interview, stated that the academic route had historically received all the attention, and this did not necessarily address the issue of a 50% dropout rate of learners before they complete matric. She also stated that countries like Germany invested more resources towards technical and vocational learning institutions.

The challenge that this draft framework poses is that:

-          It anchors on a comparison with countries that have a different academic history and economic structure than ours;

-          It proposed GEC as an inadvertent solution (nay option) to the high schooling dropout rates;

-          It fails to contextualise the framework in context of it being an investment towards the acquisition of "critical skills".

There are indeed a few countries where a dual system (practical and classroom-based learning) of vocational training has been successful including the likes of Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, among others. Germany has an approximate 1.3 million apprentices in training every year, according to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis).

In 2016, almost half of the German population (47%) had a vocational training qualification. Roughly 500 000 vocational jobs are on offer every year, where 68% of the learners who go into a dual learning track get jobs immediately after training. If these are the numbers associated with vocational training, then why might this not necessarily be a good fit for South Africa?

In these countries, the learners are said to spend three or four days at the company providing their vocational training and one or two weekdays in class (Berufsschule). The said companies participate in the design and review of the curricula and examinations to ensure it meets their skills needs and is governed by training regulations that are benchmarked countrywide.

This ensures that the skills quality and efficacy offered by these programmes can be accepted and respected by both public and private sector companies. In our local context, companies do not meaningfully participate neither design nor examinations in TVET and similar vocational learning institutions. As such, these GECs are likely to be worthless papers in the eyes of corporate South Africa.

More interestingly, in Germany (the case study in question) these programmes are administered under the ministry of economic affairs and energy. This suggests that such a programme would need to be aligned to the economic growth and development plans of the economy and would need to closely align to the critical skills conversation. In Germany, the vocational schools partner with more than 430 000 companies, with more than 80% of large companies said to hire apprentices.

What is necessary in a South African context is for policy makers to contextualise education skills development to the needs of the economy, taking into account the structural constraints facing the economy.

For example, such vocational skills may be more relevant in construction than they may be in financial services. So taking into account that construction has had four consecutive quarters of negative growth having shed more than 150 000 jobs in the first quarter of this year, while business services experience quarters of growth, it holds true that a vocational programme geared towards getting more welders (for e.g.) may not necessarily be as skills acquisitive as it is in Germany.

The argument I make here does not suggest that vocational training has no value for the South African economy, rather that we alongside policy makers, unions and business ought to solve first how we can tailor such programmes to our economy and its needs. In its current format, the draft framework fails to address the weaknesses in our education system and is unlikely to solve the unemployment and skills issue facing the economy either.

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

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