The decline in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) pass rate has fuelled debates around differentiated pathways at the secondary school level. The Department of Basic education has shown support for such a system with the proposed introduction of a “school-leaving certificate”. This stance has been reinforced with the Department’s move towards institutionalised differentiation; in a statement at the release of the 2015 NSC results, the Director General of Basic Education stated that the Department intends to roll out a new tri-stream school system at 58 schools in 2017. The three streams are: academic, technical-vocational and technical occupations and will be delivered concurrently in the secondary schools. The intention is that approximately 60% of learners should attain technical qualifications. As part of the technical occupational stream, 26 subjects will be introduced, which will include spray-painting, panel-beating, hairdressing and woodwork.

On face value, in terms of the labour market, the funnelling of more technically-trained learners into technical and vocational education could potentially increase the supply of artisans, so desperately needed in South Africa. This may contribute to achieving the ambitious target of producing 30 000 artisans every year by 2030, set out in the National Development Plan (NDP). While the intention behind this experiment should be lauded, it does raise a number of questions regarding the future of our education system. Currently, learners who have completed Grade 9 have the option of furthering their studies at a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) College. However, the uptake of this option is low. It is critical to examine why this is so to ensure participation in the proposed programme. The history of TVET provision in the country may offer some answers.

TVET has a long and chequered past in South Africa. Prior to 1994, the Apartheid government’s interests primarily centred on the use of the education and training system to reinforce the separation between skilled white and non-skilled Black African workers. The nature and quality of education delivered was determined by race. The universities that were reserved for white students were well resourced and offered a high quality of education. For the vast majority of Black Africans there was very limited access to education or training. The result is that in the new dispensation, where education opportunities are not determined by race, university education is viewed by South Africans as superior to TVET. TVET is considered the last choice for students who have exhausted other avenues. The poor performance at many of the TVET Colleges perpetuates this pervasive negative discourse.

An indication of this “university is superior” psyche is evident in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which asked grade 9 learners about their educational aspirations. South African learners reported very high aspirations in educational achievement – 45% of grade 9 learners in South Africa aspired to achieve a postgraduate degree. The corresponding international percentage was 29%. Given South African learners low achievement scores, these could be either socially desirable responses or their unrealistic expectations given their low performance in the TIMSS assessment. A mind-set shift at a societal level is necessary to change these perceptions.

Another issue that needs careful consideration is the institutional arrangement of this differentiated system. Presently, the Department of Higher Education and Training offers technical and vocational education at TVET Colleges. Since 2009, these colleges have been subject to numerous policy changes and increased funding in order to ensure that they are responsive to labour market needs. A growth target of four million learners enrolled in further education by 2030 has been set by the NDP. In introducing the 26 subjects mentioned by the Director General, is the Department of Basic Education constructing a new system? More importantly, how will these systems articulate with each other? Without due consideration of the institutional arrangements, the duplication or a conflict of systems may lead to inefficient use of limited resources. In a country with numerous developmental challenges, such duplication may result in undue financial burden.

Educational reforms, by their nature, tend to be complex and difficult to implement. The implementation of a differentiated system may be even more so without due consideration of the historical, social and institutional factors at play. If not, the political forces which favour a differentiated education system may face strong societal opposition.

Dr Andrea Juan

Dr Vijay Reddy

Sylvia Hannan

Dr Linda Zuze