Mixed messages about the future of education in South Africa

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That South Africa’s education system needs work has become accepted fact, particularly in light of the fast-moving changes the world is seeing with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, it seems that opinions on the direction those changes should take differ widely – even among the decision makers who will ultimately dictate what South Africa’s students learn at school.

Speaking at the Basic Education Department’s Lekgotla, President Cyril Ramaphosa said by preparing children to excel from an early age, especially in the priority areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), South Africa will better prepare them for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “Working together, we must strive to ensure that our children excel from an early age in STEM,” he said.

However, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has called for a more ‘decolonised’ education system, saying the current system needs to be amended to allow for diversification during her speech at the Lekgotla. She wants more diverse subjects from high school through to university, calling the current systems “very colonial, British, academic”.

While Motshekga’s comments are generally in-line with the ANC’s latest election manifesto, which calls for some major changes to the South African education system, including curriculum changes, it’s impossible to “decolonise” education while at the same time preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The ANC’s 2019 manifesto calls for changes to school curricula predominantly to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but this will necessarily have a focus on the “colonial, British, academic” STEM subjects.

There is also a move to open up access to further education with some of the proposed changes, with the potential implementation of a General Education Certificate (GEC) below Grade 12. “Apart from facilitating the transition from school to college, a GEC would address the current problem of hundreds of thousands of young people leaving education completely each year, with no national qualification with which to navigate the labour market,” Ramaphosa said.

Theoretically, the GEC would allow school leavers without a Matric to enrol at a technical college or to apply for apprenticeships, creating more skilled workers in the country. However, the government is also looking at further opening up university education by doing away with the designated subjects list, and allowing matriculants to get bachelor’s entry on a wider array of subjects. Previously, matrics were required to meet the pass prerequisite from a set subject list of 18, which included subjects like accounting, maths and science. With the changes, they now need only to pass any of the approved 20-credit NSC subjects (excluding Life Orientation).

While the GEC would be in line with the government’s stated goals of preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, changing the bachelors entry requirements will not only result in universities having to implement bridging courses, it will likely exacerbate the current problem universities have of high dropout rates due to lack of preparedness on the part of learners for university learning requirements.

The stated aims of bringing South Africa’s education system in line with international trends are laudable, but this schizophrenic approach seems to be leading learners back towards the failed OBE curriculum that was replaced by the CAPS curriculum a few years ago. OBE was aimed at focusing on teaching learners “real” skills, but merely succeeded in allowing an entire generation to matriculate with barely any numerical or language literacy. CAPS has proven itself far more effective – potentially because it is based on the tried-and-tested “colonial, British, academic” approach to learning.

Only time will tell whether the government can “decolonise” the education system while improving standards and preparing the youth for the workplace, but economic realities point to a much stronger need for South Africa to become more competitive globally. To achieve that, maths, science, and technology will have to be the foundations of most matriculants’ subject choices in order to establish an effective base for the skills needed in the future.