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.
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.
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.