The introduction of a General Education Certificate (GEC) at the end of Grade 9 symbolises that a pupil has finished one phase of schooling, not that they can leave school, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has said.
"We are not talking about anything new. And people should not put anything into our mouths... I never said kids must exit the system," she told Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on Tuesday.
"A certificate does not mean exiting a system. It means exiting a phase."
The committee heard from her officials that the GEC was registered in 2009 already and registration ended in 2012, but was now being implemented because the education system was more stable.
The department also wanted to address the high dropout rate that peaked in Grade 10 and 11.
Dr Moses Simelane, the department's chief director for curriculum, said the certificate would acknowledge the competencies a pupil had gained from 10 years of schooling and then allow them to access three learning pathways.
Schools of specialisation
These would be to continue with an academic route, choose a vocational route with specialisations or access occupational work-based qualifications.
"We want to align the three-stream model by increasing the number of focused schools, mapped against special economic and industrial zones, the 10 of them which we have in the country," he said.
"We will be increasing the number of maths and science schools, agricultural, engineering, aviation, mining, media, maritime, high tech, commercials, tourism/services, schools of skill, arts and sports school[s] of excellence."
Motshekga acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead, with regards to funding and marking.
She, however, pointed out that the certificate would just be formalising "what we are already doing".
As an example, schools in Kwazulu-Natal and the Western Cape were already offering maritime studies.
"If you go to the school of aviation [in Gauteng], parents fall over each other [because] they want their kids to do that," she said.
Infrastructure and funding concerns
"We have a joint team with higher education to make sure we have harmonisation with TVET colleges... We are also working to train teachers in these new areas."
Welcoming the opportunity to externally assess pupils sooner, Motshekga said Grade 12 teachers were overworked and had to "claw back" at deficits that pupils brought with them.
"It can't just be in Grade 12 that teachers know which standards they are working towards."
Committee members of different political parties generally welcomed the GEC, while sharing some questions or concerns that they had.
"Why is a grade 12 teacher so worried and grade 11 and 9, 10, and 8 not as worried? Simply because they know the grade 12 learners will be tested externally. If we have more of the external exams, that is ensuring the standard that we are having. We support it," said IFP MP Siphosethu Ngcobo.
He wondered whether the department had adequately researched the infrastructure and funding needed for these streams.
"These classrooms will need to be different than just those four walls and a board because of the kind of work that will be done there," he said.
DA MP Chantel King had similar concerns about how well run and funded the technical centres would be.
"Should these learners opt to go that route, is it going to be up to parents to fund them or how will they be funded, given that they come from schools which were free?" she asked.
Fellow DA MP Nomsa Tarabella Marchesi said she had visited technical schools in the Northern Cape where an agricultural school did not have a cow and those studying technical drawing did not have a drawing board.
Presentations to Treasury
She wanted to know who would be absorbing pupils who went the technical route, when some people with TVET certificates were sitting at home and unable to find a job.
ANC MP Elvis Siwela wondered whether the certificate would be issued to all pupils and at what cost.
On funding, Simelane replied that the maths, science and technology conditional grant was being used for implementing the technical vocational pathway.
"With infrastructure, the schools all have workshops and other facilities on site for the implementation of these subjects," he said, with plans to roll out more schools.
"Presentations have been made to National Treasury on the three-stream model to look at possibilities for funding."
The department had involved the corporate sector and Sector Education and Training Authorities.
"These partnerships with industry and business allowed us access to their technical training centres," he said.
The committee heard that the GEC may be issued on demand instead of automatically, with a possible fee for those who wanted it.
"We are looking at finalising the GEC qualification by the end of 2020 [with the hope that we] can start rolling it out from 2022," said Simelane.