Grade 9 exit could be key to economic growth

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The proposed Grade 9 exit could be a game changer for vocational education, and South Africa’s economic development, writes Sive Madala Gumenge. 

The recent announcement by the Basic Education Minister Mam Angie Motshekga, that school learners could be certified to leave high school post Grade 9 if they need to venture into specialised occupations has caused a stir. Perhaps correctly so, because the basic public education landscape has not been the best and even Ministers themselves do not send their children to public schools.

However, there is more to understand about the education landscape: its purpose in the development of knowledge and skills for nation building, particularly from an economic point of view. The announcement could be a perfect opportunity for South African government to review or restructure the TVET landscape to meet the objectives of the Grade 9 exit. This, however, will need serious inter-departmental collaboration.

We are so accustomed to the university landscape as the only educational platform that leads to development and securing of comfortable futures. Of course it produces lawyers, doctors, engineers – careers associated with big cities housing powerful universities, such as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

It is Port Elizabeth that made me think about the need for government to reconsider various options to align with the Grade 9 exit. The principles of post-schooling are about access, differentiation of programmes, articulation, differentiation of institutions and capacity building. Therefore, if the General Education Certificate (GEC) is aimed at sending more people to technical education institutions, which in the South African post schooling system are TVETs and it targets 10 000 artisans a year, then we must radically change the TVET structure.

There is a TVET College in Port Elizabeth which is the old Russell Road College. Besides Port Elizabeth being recently in the news for its choice of Mayors in the Metro, it is a well-known old city which hosts the Iron Man challenge and enjoys a vibrant rugby culture synonymous with the Watson family. Of course, the town is now named after the iconic Nelson Mandela.

If we are to tell our young people in Nelson Mandela to exit at Grade 9, what is on offer for them, given that their peers who pass Grade 12 and who study at Nelson Mandela University will look down on them? The state will have to therefore foster a New Dawn of collaboration between its departments to change the current TVET set-up. This will mean inter-departmental working partnerships between the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Department of Transport to rearrange the Port Elizabeth TVET College’s academic programmes to align with new expectations of serious job creation and artisan production targets.

The state will have to open a campus in Port Alfred, on the eastern seaboard halfway between Port Elizabeth and East London, to give meaning to the post-schooling system principles (differentiation of institutions and programmes, and access). Port Alfred could not only create opportunities for commercial fish farming but could also offer the state’s first aviation training site – it already it has 43 Air School. The area around Port Alfred already has strong agricultural activity.

If a Port Alfred-based College is rearranged to offer new academic programmes relevant to the oceans economy and aviation, young people of the region and across the country will be able to see the point of a Grade 9 exit and not feel like they’re somehow inferior to their friends at university.

This will need active municipal participation in post-schooling to align with local economic development programmes, and for academics to think about what is absent from current curricula and how to boost and support new TVET academic programmes.

Recently the Umfolozi TVET College opened a Maritime Centre which I believe will be very helpful for the development of the area and Richards Bay in particular. Furthermore, the Nelson Mandela University has established a campus of Oceans Sciences which can be a very good theoretical base for TVET graduates who would then wish to further their studies and venture into knowledge production of the training they’ve acquired at Port Elizabeth TVET College Aqua & Agriculture Campus.

The basic education supported by the Department of Higher Education and Training must affirm this exit as a skills qualification and translate it into real radical economic transformation for the people of South Africa, specifically the youth. Those who understand the pre-democratic education system will appreciate the importance of skilled artisans in rebuilding an economy.

What we need is political will and positive forces.

Sive Madala Gumenge writes in his personal capacity. He is a former provincial executive member of the South African Students Congress in the Western Cape

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