Charles Simkins | Jan 17, 2017
This brief outlines recent proposals from the Department of Basic Education on adding a third skills and vocational stream to the school system. Details have yet to be worked out, and the process will not be easy, but it is clear already that the third stream will have implications for currently uniform Grade 1 to Grade 9 education.
Up to now, basic education has had two streams: the academic/technical, leading to the National Senior Certificate and technical vocational leading to a qualification at the same level within the National Qualifications Framework: either the N3 Certificate or the National Certificate (Vocational) Level 4. Both streams are built on a common school programme of general education up to the end of Grade 9, after which learners can either stay in schools or transfer to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, progressing through the N1/NC(V) Level 2 and the N2/NC(V) level 3 to N3/NC(V) Level 4 and even beyond to the N6 level.   
Now, the Department is proposing a third stream: the technical occupational stream which will offer skills and vocational programmes. Skills and vocational training is intended to impart language, functional mathematics and life skills as well as to offer 22 vocational specialisations[1]. The diagram below shows the intended flow of learners through the system.  
This development is the result of several pressures, which are not necessarily coherent. They include:
  1. The allure of the German vocational educational system which for generations has produced the industrious and competent workers underpinning German industrial success. Of particular importance is the Hauptschule, which follows four years of elementary education. Hauptschulen are for learners with average or below average grades and the exit level is lower secondary education. Higher performing learners  spend five or six years at a Realschule,or enter a Gymnasium. The standard of education is somewhat higher in a Realschule than in a Hauptschule, and Realschule learners often go on to vocational schools. Neither Hauptschulen nor Realschulen qualify their learners for university entrance. This is the function of the Gymnasium, and some Realschule graduates transfer to them. In many ways, the system is socially conservative, tending to segregate working class learners from the children of the middle class, and in left of centre cities, like Berlin and Hamburg, the three tier system has been partially or completely dissolved into comprehensive schools.  
  2. Constant complaints from South African business about the products of the educational system not being ready for the world of work. To a considerable extent, this reflects chronic shortages in the supply of skilled manual workers, but it also reflects anxiety about socialisation of the young into business values. The German vocational school system rotates learners between learning theory in the class room sandwiched between substantial spells working in a business. This neatly solves the business socialisation problem, especially given that graduation from a vocational schools confers considerably more status than it does, say, in the United Kingdom.
  3. The constant search by the South African educational system for more inclusion. Two categories of learner are a special risk. The first is students identified as having special needs[2], who are often, but not always educated at special schools. In 2014, 117 477 learners were identified as having special needs, slightly less than one per cent of all school enrolments, though there are undoubtedly some learners with special needs who are not identified as such. Because they are a relatively small group, and because there is a long tradition of special schooling, this group by itself would not justify a major system adjustment. But there are many other learners who struggle for other reasons- the burden of poverty, membership in a dysfunctional household, a lack of interest in, and ability for, application to their work – and this is showing up at the senior phase of general education, awkwardly split between Grade 7 in primary schools and Grades 8 and 9 in secondary schools. Repetition and drop-out rates in Grades 7, 8 and 9 in 2011/12 were:


Grade 7

Grade 8

Grade 9













And there are many more successfully completing Grade 9, but not equipped to start preparing for the either the National Senior Certificate or for vocational qualifications at a TVET College. It is to cope with the second, and much larger, group that the Department of Basic Education is proposing to depart from a common nine grade general education curriculum – once thought to be an essential part of creating citizens through a common formative experience - and develop a pre-Grade 9 skills and vocational system.

All of this raises the question of how and when learners will be recruited into the technical occupational stream, a question not answered by the Department’s submission to the parliamentary committee. Will there be grade progression in the system, especially given that some special education is not organized that way?  How can streaming be reconciled with the determination of many learners (and their parents) to stay in the academic stream, even when the odds of success are heavily stacked against them? The extent of the problem can be seen in the route taken into TVET colleges. The original idea is that entry TVET would take place largely from Grade 9, but the Community Survey of 2016 shows that 58% of learners enrolled in TVET Colleges reported Grade 12/N3/NC(V) Level 4 as their highest educational level, most of whom must have come from schools. Instead of opting for vocational education as first choice, many learners are trying the academic stream first and, only after failing in it, turning to TVET colleges as a second chance.  This is one of the reasons why the pass rate in the key TVET examinations (N3, N6 and NC(V) Level 4) is lower than in the National Senior Certificate. In 2014, 127 657 TVET students enrolled for the relevant examinations, 121 434 wrote them and 55 431 passed them, a pass rate of 46%.    
Associated with the proposed reform are key questions of values, mechanisms, resources and relationships with the world of work. Given diverse expectations, none of them will be resolved easily.
Charles Simkins
Head of Research


[1] These are:  agricultural studies, arts and crafts, office administration, early childhood development, motor mechanics, car body work, welding, sheet metal work, electrical technology, woodworking, hairdressing, beauty and nail care, ancillary health care, upholstery, maintenance, food production, sewing, hospitality, wholesale and retail, bricklaying and plastering, plumbing and security services 
[2] The categories of special needs include attention deficit disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, behavioural disorder, blind, cerebral palsied, deaf, epilepsy, hard of hearing, mild or moderately intellectually disabled, partially sighted, physically disabled, psychiatric disorder, and severe intellectual disability