Vocational training is not an easy alternative to formal schooling

Vocational training shouldn’t be dismissed as an easy, lazy alternative to completing formal schooling. From www.shutterstock.com

South Africa’s Department of Basic Education has a plan to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis and its skills shortage. A task team established by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has proposed that learners who leave the formal school system at the end of Grade 9 be awarded an exit certificate.

This General Education and Training Certificate (GETC) will allow learners to quit after Grade 9 – their average age then is around 15 or 16 – and be absorbed into vocational streams. These are Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges, technical high schools, apprenticeships or other work-based programmes.

Motshekga’s rationale is framed by the highly problematic belief that vocational education programmes are less academically demanding and are therefore a suitable alternative to the academic curriculum in schools. Modern vocational programmes must prepare students for complex work which demands a skills and knowledge mix that is different but not necessarily easier than school subjects.

Science, maths are crucial

South Africa’s maths and science results are extremely poor. But joining the vocational stream won’t help learners avoid these tough subjects. Both are part of the curriculum for National Certificate Vocational programmes in engineering fields like Electrical Infrastructure Construction. They are required for admission to many of the programmes that link to certified trades like electrician or boilermaker. Mathematics or mathematical literacy is a compulsory subject in all vocational programmes.

This is because, increasingly, artisans need to be able to analyse and solve problems, taking a range of social, ethical and environmental factors into account. Mechanics must understand modern automobiles’ complex systems – an interplay between electronics, software and mechanical aspects. This requires some understanding of maths and science.

Umalusi, the quality council responsible for both the mainstream National Senior Certificate (Matric) and the existing National Certificate Vocational, has compared the cognitive demand in these common subjects in the two qualifications.

It found that the demand was similar and in some cases more intense in the vocational programme. This means that sending learners who aren’t coping with formal schooling into vocational streams may be shifting some of the problem – but is not really addressing it.

Alternative solutions

The task team’s proposal actually just formalises an existing practice. Although most Technical and Vocational Education and Training college students enrol only once they’ve completed formal schooling, the colleges are already accepting students who have completed Grade 9 or higher but not obtained a National Senior Certificate into most programmes.

Some in the sector have questioned whether the colleges are equipped to deal with such young students. They do not have the support systems and structured time management that good secondary schools do. Given Umalusi’s findings, it must also be asked whether the existing National Certificate Vocational is an appropriate curriculum for the type of youngsters who leave formal school after Grade 9.

The Department of Basic Education is investing in the country’s technical high schools and there is discussion in the schooling sector about whether these might be better placed to offer the National Certificate Vocational. The teachers are trained for this age group and the schools are geared towards a full time teenage student.

Historically, colleges have catered for students who are older, often in apprenticeships or already employed. This makes them better suited to a dual system of training that is linked more directly to workplaces.

This is not to say there’s no value in a General Education and Training Certificate. It will improve South Africa’s very high dropout statistics from the last three years of the school system. The country has almost universal enrolment up to Grade 9, but these figures nose dive in subsequent grades.

The annual obsession with Matric pass rates completely misses the fact that only half ever made it to the final exams. These are the young people without prospects whom everyone is so concerned about. A General Education and Training Certificate would give these young people a piece of paper that alters them from “school dropout” to someone with a qualification.

But will this make any difference to those youngsters? For some it may offer access to an alternative education pathway in the colleges, but not on the scale that is required and many will find it equally difficult to succeed academically.

There may be a few employers who will recruit someone into an entry level job if they have a GETC, but given that the Matric certificate itself has little currency in the labour market it is highly unlikely that a lower level GETC will be recognised.

The most promising solution may lie with the yet-to-be established community colleges where programmes ranging from an adult matric to vocational and skills courses will be offered. But these colleges are in their infancy.