Why the Grade 9 Exit Point for SA Schools could be headed for Disaster

When Deputy Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, recently announced that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is planning to “formalize” grade 9 as one of the exit points for school, social media were ablaze with criticisms, with people saying that it is likely going to worsen a situation that is already critically bad.

No doubt, the youth unemployment problem has reached crisis proportions.

Youth unemployment in this country is among the highest in the world. According to StatsSA, as of the first quarter of 2019 the unemployment rate among the 15 to 25 age group stood at a shocking 55,2%. This is an unsustainable situation, and it is just a matter of time before the entire economy of the country starts to feel the pinch, if it hasn’t already. 

As if that is not alarming enough, the school dropout rate has now reached crisis proportions. Nearly half of the kids entering grade 10 do not make it through matric. These kids usually end up as unemployment statistics. Year after year, this pattern repeats itself, adding more young people into the unemployed masses, further aggravating the crippling poverty in this country.

South Africa desperately needs change.

We have not been given enough details about Minister Motshekga’s plans to say whether it is going to be the change that the country needs, but one thing is very clear: we need to be careful to not place the cart before the horse on this one, or else it will fail.

I do not believe the idea of formalising grade 9 as an exit point is a bad one; in fact, it is a great idea, and one that is not only needed in South Africa, but is being considered in even some developed countries like the United States.

Not all learners are academic, and the current system of channelling everyone through a purely academic system is actually one of the primary reasons for kids dropping out of school. Learners who are not academic, but might possess other inherent talents, such as creativity, artistic abilities, business acumen, or technical prowess, are made to feel inferior because they are unable compete with their academically inclined counterparts.

This is perfectly summed up in a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

It seems that the entire schooling system has been designed with university entrance in mind. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson, the world-renowned author, speaker and education advisor, says that “If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.”

This system is not only demoralizing and demotivating, but also highly counter-productive. Non-academic skills are in high demand in the economy, but young people are dissuaded from entering such careers because the academic path is highly, and unduly, glorified. 

Let’s face it: we consider it bragworthy to say that a child is studying medicine or law, but not so much that she is studying carpentry, plumbing or motor mechanics. Yet, the latter are potentially lucrative career paths. 

It is for this reason that I believe Minister Angie’s vision to allow learners to choose a learning path from as young as grade 9 is a great idea, and could help solve a number of problems.

Firstly, it could tackle the country’s youth unemployment problem. If this is implemented correctly and according to a long-term strategic plan, we could soon be churning out matriculants who are skilled enough to get into employment or start a business of their own, thereby boosting the overall economy.

Secondly, the school dropout rate could drop because learners will be able to pursue a path that they are passionate about. Further, it will be a huge relief for poorer parents, knowing they will not have to send their kids to university for four years before they are employable.

Conceptually, the grade 9 exit plan is a great one, but it should actually be among the last steps in a long-term strategic plan. The plan should start with taking a good close look at the current alternatives to university: the vocational and technical schools. 

Are these institutes providing the levels of education that will facilitate the vision? Will learners come out of these schools equipped with the requisite skills for employment? Are they mainstream enough that they provide a viable alternative for youth throughout the country?

A cursory study of the current status quo shows that we are far from ready. What we need is a considerable investment in time and money to bring the current institutes to the levels where they become centres of excellence, and to establish many more such institutes around the country, where they will become accessible to all learners.

Only then will the grade 9 exit point have a chance to become the solution we need. Trying to “jump the queue” will lead to a total disaster.