Last week’s announcement of the field-testing of a General Education Certificate (GEC) at the end of Grade 9 caused significant public uproar, but much of this outrage is disconnected from the realities of South Africa’s education system.
Currently, only half of all children who start school make it to matric – the majority drop out in Grade 10 and 11 after repeating multiple grades. Grade 9 marks the end of compulsory schooling; if done right, formalising this point in a learner’s educational journey could be an important mechanism to improve outcomes for young people – and in the long run, improve the quality of the overall education system.
Here are five opportunities the GEC could unlock, and what we need to do to make them work:
1. It would create a mechanism for proper assessment of Grade 9 learners’ core skills, giving them new signaling tools to the labour market.
According to a recent paper by education economist Prof. Servaas van der Berg and colleagues, an estimated 300 000 young people leave the schooling system each year. These early school leavers mostly leave between Grade 10 and 12 – without any formal qualification to show for their many years in the education system. According to one study, only 1% of young people that leave school without matric ever go on to complete another formal qualification (at a TVET or other college).
While the GEC is not positioned primarily as a school-leaving certificate, the reality is that many young people will still leave the school system between Grade 10 and 12 – having a formal certificate may help them signal their skills to the labour market.
To make the GEC work, however, there remains significant work that needs to be done to reorient South Africa’s employers. For example, many low-skill jobs – such as shelf-packing – require matric as an entry point even if there is no significant correlation between the skills needed for the job and a matric certificate. For the GEC to be impactful, we therefore need to get business to reimagine its needs and match them more effectively with young people. We can learn how to do this from organisations like Harambee, who have been working with employers to find better ways of matching suitable candidates to jobs beyond just education levels.
2. It would enable the FET system to work better.
It is important to note that the GEC is not being introduced as a standalone solution to all our educational woes. It is, in fact, a stepping stone towards the introduction of a three-stream system for the Further Education and Training (FET) levels of schooling. These three streams – academic, technical-vocational and technical-occupational – aim to create a schooling system that can meet the needs of the full population of learners. There is much to debate in this approach, but a certificate at Grade 9 makes sense as a key step towards making a wider range of options available to young people.
What we need to do, however, is ensure that the options being presented are, in fact, real and of good quality. Last year the first cohort of matriculants wrote technical subjects, and some were shocked to find that despite distinctions they could not enroll in universities due to poor articulation of the new subjects into the higher education landscape.
If the GEC is to be of real value, we need to fix the links between basic and further education and ensure that all three streams are valued by society and employers, and are offering a clear pathway towards employment opportunities for young people. We need to ensure more effective articulation of the entire post-secondary education system and improve the quality of TVET Colleges.
3. It may make it easier to get TVET colleges to accept young people with less than matric.
In theory the TVET College system has two entry points for learners who already leave school after Grade 9 – the N1 and the NC(V)2. These levels are each equivalent to a Grade 10 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). However, virtually no young people that leave school without a matric are able to actually access TVET colleges. According to the 2014 General Household Survey, only 5% of 15-24 year olds with a Grade 9, and who had left school, were enrolled in a public TVET College. TVET colleges report selecting for students with a matric in order to ensure a standard level of literacy and numeracy amongst successful candidates, so a quality set of standardised exams at the end of Grade 9 could make it easier for TVET colleges to open options for those without a matric.
4. It may create a more real and imminent sense of possibility for young people.
At the moment, young people are given little in the way of practical and navigational career guidance. They also report that their parents and communities only place value on a university education and that studying at TVETs is viewed as a failure. However, young people, recognising that they have a diverse set of skills, are crying out for more information and transparency to other routes of post-school training. We can make the GEC work to enable real options, only if we provide quality navigational career guidance to learners at the start of their high-school journey. If we can get this right, we might transform a generation who would have seen themselves as ‘drop-outs’ into achievers, with a real sense of their options and possibilities for next steps on a lattice of opportunities.
5. It presents a useful opportunity to assess the quality of the education system.
Currently the only standardised assessment of quality across every single school in South Africa is the National Senior Certificate (matric) exam. The GEC represents an opportunity for a second, earlier, metric by which we can measure the quality of our education system. The GEC is the first step towards a systemic quality assessment at Grades 3, 6, and 9, which will allow us to identify failing schools and learners earlier and provide the necessary support to make sure things improve. Imagine if the whole country got as worked up about Grade 3 results as matric results! If we could get these measures implemented and get the data into the hands of parents, teachers and those working to improve schools, we may galvanise new attention and action to improve quality throughout the schooling system.
In the midst of our education crisis, many people are searching for large-scale interventions that can change the trajectory of the whole system. But this is not how real reform happens. Rather it will be the coming together of some key initiatives – such as a radical commitment to basic literacy and numeracy, the delivery of remedial programmes, more power in the hands of parents to hold schools accountable for quality teaching, and new quality measures throughout the system. The GEC fits into this picture as a crucial piece of a much bigger puzzle. But it is a piece without which we cannot secure positive pathways for the majority of our young people.
This article was first published by the Daily Maverick on 02 October 2019.
Image courtesy of iStock/Gallo Images
 van Broekhuizen, H., van der Berg, S., Hofmeyr, H. 2017. Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 National Matric Cohort. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers 16/16.
 Van der Berg, S., Wills, G., Selkirk, R., Adams, C., and Van Wyk, C. 2019. The cost of repetition in South Africa. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: WP13/2019 (2019). Available at: https://www.ekon.sun.ac.za/wpapers/2019/wp132019
 Gustafsson, M. 2011. The when and how of leaving school: The policy implications of new evidence on secondary schooling in South Africa.” Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. 09/2011 , no. 09/11.
Harambee. 2018. Breaking barriers: Quarterly Employment Report 2018. Available at: https://harambee.co.za/quarter-1-breaking-barriers/
 Somdyala. K. 2019. Promising Western Cape student can’t enroll at university due to technical subjects. News24.Available at:
 Statistics South Africa. 2015. General Household Survey 2014. Available at: https://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0318/P03182015.pdf
 DNA Economics. 2016. Performance and Expenditure Review: Technical and Vocational Education and Training. National Tresaury.