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SA’s mid-high school certificate is a game changer

School leavers can use the formal qualification to enrol at technical and vocational education and training colleges or to seek work.
Image: Shutterstock

Every year, more than 300 000 pupils drop out of South African schools after Grade 9. The average age at this level of schooling is 15 years old. Some of them aren’t academically prepared to progress to the next grade; some leave because of financial difficulties.

Many of the pupils who leave school at that stage remain unemployed for years. Around half of the population under 25 years old is unemployed, in an economy that’s barely growing and lacks skilled workers.

The South African government has proposed a new certificate for school leavers at Grade 9, which is the second year of high school. It’s aimed at giving them some indication of competence in the job market. Currently, the only school leaving certificate is issued at the end of Grade 12, the final year of high school.

Some critics argue that the new certificate may encourage more pupils to drop out of school. But we argue that the additional testing for the certificate is a positive move. This is because of its potential to improve the quality and structure of education in ways that support youth employment and the economy.

The General Education Certificate will be a formal qualification that school leavers can use to enrol at technical and vocational education and training colleges or to look for work.

Post-school pathways

As things stand, after Grade 9 pupils can enter into the academic stream from Grade 10 to Grade 12 in schools. Or they can enter technical or occupational streams at colleges. This latter route is not popular. In a 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, more than 70% of Grade 9 pupils said they wanted a tertiary qualification in the form of a certificate, diploma or university degree.

In the same survey, only 4% intended to apply at Further Education and Training colleges after Grade 9. Reasons for this include a lack of awareness about other training options. This overwhelming preference for the academic pathway is a problem in a country ranked among the lowest in academic tests.

The South African education environment is structured in a way that hasn’t allowed young people to be realistic about their potential and the availability of options other than finishing high school to gain a university entrance.

To change this, the minimum competencies required to obtain the new mid-level high school certificate must be made explicit. The subjects that will be chosen for assessment must be valued by society. Examples are English for business communication and mathematics for numeracy. These subjects should signal the readiness of learners to succeed in technical vocational and occupational programmes or the labour market.

One of the positive side effects of putting in place an assessment tool for a high quality and economically relevant qualification is that the quality of education offered at lower grades in the schooling system will improve. The assessment would, for example, force schools and teachers to spend more resources and effort at lower grades to prepare pupils better for the Grade 9 certificate exams. They currently make this kind of effort for the Grade 12 certificate.

When vocational and training colleges are expected to play a more important role in the education system, they will have more opportunities to offer relevant training in areas such as agriculture, business, tourism, information and communications technology. This can happen if colleges receive more public and private funding.

If the mid-high school certificate becomes a generally accepted qualification for admission into technical and vocational education and training colleges, fewer learners will wait until completing Grade 12 before applying to those colleges.

Most technical and vocational college qualifications are ranked lower than or similar to a Grade 12 certificate. It’s therefore a waste of time for pupils to complete Grade 12 before entering a college programme at a lower qualification level.


Critics point out that many of the country’s vocational training institutions aren’t equipped to cope with a possible influx of learners who have the new certificate. Although this argument has merit, it can also be argued that with the new certificate in place, there would be an incentive to improve the curriculum and management of those institutions.

With more public and private sector focus on these colleges they would be forced to respond to job market needs better than they do now. The Grade 9 certificate would contribute to improving the colleges’ responsiveness to market demands.

Another concern is that the certificate would encourage higher drop-out rates from the schooling system. This may be true for pupils who want to enter the job market but currently stay in school because they don’t have alternatives. The certificate would give them something to show the job market.

With more options made more explicit, leaving the academic route to follow more vocational technical and occupational streams couldn’t be classified as dropping out of the schooling system altogether.

Going forward

The quality of the mid-level high school certificate should provide a choice of different types of technical and vocational programmes. These should include short term occupational and trade qualifications through private colleges, not only the three year technical programmes normally offered at public colleges.

This means that all vocational and training college programmes must have high economic currencies that are responsive to the practical demands of the labour market.

For the education system to work better as a whole, there needs to be more alignment of vision, policy and implementation between the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training. Both government departments must find strategies for working with the private sector to ensure that education and training is always relevant to economic needs.

With a meaningful mid-level high school certificate and the above mentioned programmes in place, the prevailing negative mindsets of learners and employers around vocational technical and occupational routes are also likely to disappear.The Conversation

Nhlanhla Mbatha is professor of Economics, School of Business Leadership (Unisa), University of South Africa.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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In the good old days a standard 6 certificate which was later changed to standard 8 ensured the basic education necessary to enter job market. The success of the individual at that time didn’t depend on his university degree but rather on his ingenuity. So what’s the big fuzz about school leavers at grade 9 (standard 7).

The problem is overpopulation and too many babies. The economy simply isn’t large enough to support all the babies being born.

Indeed. We do appear to have a propagation of millions of domestics and gardeners thanks to our excellent education system.

The strange thing is that SA used to have a “Junior Certificate”, granted after Grade 10. It served its recipients and the economy very well. Arguably the standard was higher than the current matric, especially from a SADTU-captured school.

Amongst the harmful legacies of apartheid are the over-emphasis on formal academic achievement (the “Herr Doktor Dominee” syndrome) which is little more than snobbery. While SA does need engineers, doctors, MBAs, CAs and more, it also needs builders, electricians, nurses, bookkeepers and plumbers AND more skilled unqualified workers. This requires an upgrading of schools and greater emphasis on artisanal training. A shunned aspect of the apartheid era is that the Nationalist government used SOEs like Eskom, Spoornet and Telkom to apprentice youngsters and upskill the out of poor-whitehood. Shamefully, this mainly benefitted (Afrikaans) whites, but the programme demonstrates what could have been achieved were those SOEs not transformed into nomenklatural gravy troughs.

Another legacy of apartheid is that many black kids do not realise the amount of sweat & aptitude degrees require — especially lucrative ones — or that they imply continuous learning and professional development.

Given the fiscal constraints on the economy, it would be better if less students were admitted to universities, with the proviso that those who needed it are sufficiently funded (including textbooks, transporte, sustenance and reasonable entertainment) and mentored to ensure that they graduate with good work prospects, manageable debt and the critical thinking skills graduate jobs require.

Typical to blame apartheid for ‘black kids not realising the amount of sweat & aptitude degrees require’.
Maybe for putting them on the back foot, yes, but not for their failure to see the degree through.

If they underestimate what it takes to get a degree, and they don’t embrace the struggle and get it done, that has got nothing to do with the legacy of apartheid.
It’s called adversity and is part of everyday life everywhere in the world.
But we’ve allowed our youth to always take the easy way out, blame others and then demand they get what they didn’t deserve in the first place.

Get in, get stuck and get it done.
That’s how the rest of the world operates when faced against adversity. .

However, back in South Africa, we thrive on excuses and shifting the blame.

So someone gets 30% in Grade 9, which is about the same as 5% in Matric and now they are suddenly “employable” because government has deemed it so with a certificate? Seriously?

Whoever dreamed this up, take this perspective from a businessman: there is zero chance of my company employing such a person. Zero. It’s already near-impossible to find someone with a Matric who is employable at entry-level. And why would the vocational training centres want to look at such candidates when there are older, more mature graduates with Matric knocking at their doors?

This is exactly the same mentality which destroyed the learner driving instructor industry starting in 1996. (“If we make the instructor’s test easier, we’ll create more employment.”) Nominally true. But none of those new instant instructors had any clue, which lead to multiple repeat failures of people attempting their driving test.

It’s not hard to grasp how that led first to a trickle, and then later a torrent of bribery in licence testing. Now, 45% to 50% of new licences are bought, and road safety is chaos. Whenever you read of dozens of people being being killed in one crash, remember that it all started with a job-creation scheme rooted in reduced standards.

Indeed. The real reason i.m.o. is a lack of resources. Cannot afford to build more schools / technical colleges. Not enough candidates around that can potentially be trained to qualify as effective teachers / trainers. Not prepared to stop the wholesale government looting by connected politicians and their related patronage networks. Rather let more failures of the system out on to the streets begging or stealing and focus on expropriation of land, medical aid reserves and private pensions without compensation (commonly referred to as stealing).

The lack of education resources in SA is also the partly the fault of the victims of this lack of resources (i.e. students are to blame). When I was young, my dad was involved in the building industry. Pre-1995 new schools were being built in rural areas (yes, that DID occur contrary to what the media will you since he was involved in building these). The schools included advanced computers (for that time) with good libraries.

The schools were opened with some construction still left outstanding (which is customary, for example completion of gardens or lunch areas). Within 3 months of opening, these facilities were trashed (littered, defaced, monitors smashed and books burned/ripped apart). Noted, we can’t be certain if this was from the students or agents of the now ruling party.

Funny, since we (the “advantaged” as the media would say) only got our first computer some years later after saving for it for a while and we kept that for the next 5-8 years.

The beds were made, now sleep on them as the saying goes..

4 hours to moderate a comment? Please explain yourself Moderator. Some comments are posted within minutes. Whats up?

My guess is that it is a result of an algorithm designed to filter potentially “PC- offensive words” in comments. Such red-flagged comments are then earmarked for moderation. The rate of moderation in turn depends on time and availability of the moderator/s. Trick is to work around those key words. I seem to regularly fall foul of this dreaded filter.

The problem is that ‘they’ try to make excuses for failures in the education system. Then ‘they’ come up with a alternative plan to accommodate the failures. And because some ‘professor’ endorse the new plan we are suppose to believe it is a good plan.
It is the learners that fails.

I fully agree. It is weird how teachers don’t het the tools to properly get learners workplace ready.

Schools have become a glorified babysitter centers. If you look at how violence is escalating on schools it is just mind boggeling. Kids are ruling schools and if these kids go colleges it is even going to get worse their aswell, because most of the drop outs have dissplinary problems, so how much will colleges help the situation.

We must sort out the schools. There must be more schools that are skilled orientated.

We can’t teach the same way we where thought. Kids are frustrated in our schools and there are such easy sulotions but government does not want to pay teachers overtime.

Paying teachers overtime would be really easy if ALL parents paid the school fees in full…

Even with Matric school leavers are unemployable. How is leaving with std 9 going to help?

I fully expect Home Affairs to issue a matric certificate with every birth certificate in the near future. It’s the next logical step. Imagine how much money we will save if no one goes to school. And while they are at it, just add in a driver’s license too. Saves everyone a lot of time and trouble.

LOL. Brilliant sarcasm. Cynicism? Maybe both. Very good regardless.

Absolute negative game changer. Grade 9 maths is simplistic.

South African logic at its best. A matric certificate does not equip you for working life but a mid-high school certificate is a ‘game-changer’! When did we become so ‘doff’?

A vocational or trade qualification is worth more than grade 12. I think they assume all the dropouts will enter and qualify for trade qualifications.

But then again these learners could enter a technical college without a grade 9 certificate.They should simply proof they passed grade 9.

What more proof is needed to show that the ANC has lost the ability to lead and implement a good education policy.

Give them all government jobs, looting and stealing does not have education prerequisites.

Celebrating mediocrity…

A useless exercise until the basic low standard of education and the lying that goes on when students are pushed through by teachers to make way for the next bunch of idiots and cover up their shortcomings as teachers.
SA education needs to be assessed by competent and non corrupt officials from winning nations.
I do not trust one word or statistic of this govt and it’s cadres.

Why not have 11 more game changers and create a certificate for every grade in school?
This has to be a joke, right?

This guy is professor at UNISA? Yes it is true it says so.

SA Government – continuously setting new standards for mediocrity

Cant believe boots comment!First of all the good old days are over long ago…How much ingenuity do you think a 15 year old has other than being a whizz on his cell phone? That part of the brain hasn’t even developed enough. Maybe Boots can name some examples of captains of industry who got by with a std 8? A grade 9 qualification will be ok for a car guard I guess…

End of comments.





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