An estimated additional 500 000 learners have dropped out of school during the Covid-19 pandemic, taking dropout to its highest level in 20 years. We know that most young people who exit the schooling system without completing matric will struggle to find decent jobs. And only 1% of those who leave school without a matric certificate hold a non-school certificate or diploma because most places in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges go to people who already have a matric certificate.
With no credentials to unlock opportunities, they will join the ranks of unemployed young people and discouraged job seekers with few tools at their disposal to convince employers of their skills.
A dropout and a certification crisis long in the making — exacerbated by the disruptions of a global pandemic — has brought South Africa to a crossroads. As a country, we cannot continue as usual; we must proactively make the prevention of dropout an explicit goal of our schooling system. This means prioritising dropout in education policies and frameworks, and developing new approaches to support young people who lack certification.
Grade 9 marks the end of compulsory schooling and a well-structured certificate formalising this point in a child’s learning journey could open different pathways, particularly for those who would otherwise drop out before completing matric.
The new General Education Certificate (GEC) draft policy, published by the department of basic education (DBE), aims to unlock three pathways — academic, vocational and occupational. This means learners with a formal grade 9 certificate can choose to complete their matric through a traditional academic or technical school, or they can enroll in a TVET college to learn a technical skill, or get occupational workplace-based learning.
But, if poorly implemented, the GEC could have the adverse effect of legitimising the commonplace phenomena of leaving school without a matric certificate or equivalent skills level, failing to unlock work or study opportunities for out-of-school learners.
We need to ensure that policies address the lived experiences of young people on their path to school completion. In practice, this means the GEC must be designed to specifically plug the gaps in our education system that lead to dropout and low levels of certification.
Gap #1: Tracking and prevention
Structuring dropout prevention into the scaffolding of our basic education system starts with collecting the right type of data about individual learners so that we can intervene before they drop out.
But we don’t have complete and accurate data of individual learners’ journeys through different pathways — including post-school pathways. Much of the data at school-level is aggregated.
To be effective, the policy should call for accurate tracking and monitoring, using a unique identifier for each learner, to follow the journey of GEC holders as they move into further education and training opportunities, whether at school or TVET colleges.
Gap #2: Access to pathways
Although the draft policy aims to support learners to get access to new learning and career pathways, it does not specify what additional support this entails at school-level. This type of detail is important considering that learners who complete grade 9 currently have the option of going to a technical high school or TVET college and studying further, but most learners do not follow these routes. This tells us that they are not receiving adequate support or information to do so.
The National Qualifications Framework is complex and poorly understood. If learners are to make informed choices, they must be given accurate and practical information about the different pathways and nearest places of study that offer the courses they want to pursue. There are only 190 public technical high schools in the country. Considering the limited coverage of technical high schools, many learners are likely to explore opportunities at TVETs. Schools must have lists of TVET college options available to learners in their local districts, because many might be too young to travel to towns and cities away from home.
The draft policy must clearly outline how learners from under-resourced households will be financially supported to get into occupational and vocational streams, considering that no-fee schools account for 80% of schools. The policy must also detail how two government departments (DBE and the department of higher education and training) will work together to make this pathway accessible.
Gap #3: Repeating shortcomings
Only an estimated 40% of learners in quintile 1 to 3 schools are the right age for their grade. This shows that most young people are repeating grades. The intention of the current progression policy to mitigate the problem of over-age learners does not seem to be yielding the intended outcome.
Progressed learners are moved to the next grade even though they don’t meet the requirements for passing. When moved, they should receive support to master concepts they missed in previous grades, but this is not possible in many schools because of capacity constraints.
To lessen this problem, the draft policy should include clear protocols for schools to offer progressed learners effective support and a meaningful opportunity to remediate.
Gap #4: Practical value
A young person with a matric certificate is more likely to find a job, even without further education. For the GEC to improve a young person’s odds of finding a job, in the absence of a matric certificate, it must be valued by the labour market.
The basic education department must have a plan to ensure that employers understand and value this qualification. The private sector should be part of the consultation process for drafting this policy, and be made aware of the value and skills that form part of the GEC curriculum.
The draft policy requires buy-in from Young people, post-school institutions and potential employers. Additionally, a monitoring and evaluation framework should highlight how the policy is achieving its mandate.
A young person’s schooling journey is not always a straight path: some get stuck, some fall behind, and some fall through the cracks entirely.
The GEC has the potential to unlock new opportunities for learners who would otherwise be left with few chances to learn, earn and contribute to social and economic life. To truly improve young people’s chances, the GEC would have to address the complexities of their lived experiences.
We cannot risk failing another generation. We must find ways to bridge gaps in their path to school completion and finding employment. A comprehensive approach to implementing the GEC is a means to steady that journey.
Rahima Essop is head of communications and advocacy for the Zero Dropout Campaign, Merle Mansfield is the programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign and Kristal Duncan-Williams is the project lead for Youth Capital