Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

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, vocational-technical 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.