Grade 9 exit plan has merit

Is leaving school at grade 9 the best plan to reduce dropout rates?

When Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga recently announced that her department was planning to “formalise” Grade 9 as one of the exit points for school, social media went ablaze with criticisms, with people saying it is likely to worsen a situation that is already critically bad.

“We want to know what the Grade 9 certificates will mean to these young people – especially given the fact that even matric certificate holders, as well as some university graduates’ qualifications, are gathering dust. And we also want to know what plans the Department has in place to assist Grade 9 school leavers in upskilling themselves to enter the jobs market.” Democratic Alliance

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

According to Statistics SA, as of the first quarter of 2019, the unemployment rate among the 15-25 age group stood at a shocking 55.2%.

As if that is not alarming enough, nearly half of the pupils entering Grade 10 do not make it through matric.

Year after year, this pattern repeats itself, adding more young people to the unemployed masses – further aggravating the crippling poverty in this country.

Will Minister Motshekga’s plan be the change we need?

It is impossible to tell, since we haven’t been given any details yet. This much is certain: In principle, the idea of formalising Grade 9 as an exit point is being seriously considered as a viable alternative in some developed countries like the US to address issues like high learner dropout levels and critical skills shortage.

Not all learners are academically inclined, and the current system of channelling everyone through a purely academic system puts the non- academic types at a huge disadvantage. Those 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 to 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.”

Providing alternatives to the academic path and allowing learners to choose one they are inclined to might just be the solution for the country’s youth unemployment, poverty and school dropout problems.

However, the key to the success of such a plan is in the implementation; it needs to be a part of a long-term strategic plan, and it cannot be rushed.

We should start by taking a close look at the current alternatives to the academic route: the vocational and technical schools.

Do they provide quality education? Do they provide skills in sectors that are currently in demand, like technology? Will learners graduate with the requisite skills for employment? Are schools mainstream enough to provide a viable alternative for youth throughout the country?

A cursory study of the current status quo shows that our institutes are far from ready. What we need is to turn the existing colleges into centres of excellence and to establish many more around the country where they will become accessible to all learners.

A few years ago, this might have been extremely expensive, challenging and time-consuming. The government would need to set up infrastructure and train and hire an army of new teachers to lecture at these facilities.

Today, thanks to educational technology, it can be achieved at a fraction of the cost required in the past. There is a general misconception that such technology would be highly complicated and restrictively expensive.

For example, inexpensive video streaming has made it possible for a single teacher to simultaneously teach to multiple classrooms. Learners can view the live lecture and interact with the teacher using a live chat like WhatsApp.

This alone would transform the learning experience. Students will be drawing from the experience of highly-trained teachers and subject experts from around the country, and possibly from other parts of the world, while sitting at their local colleges.

The best part of all is the technical requirements. On the teacher’s side, all that will be required is a computer with a webcam and a fast internet connection; on the learners’ side, they will need a computer with fast internet and a projector. No special software is required.

The great thing about streaming services like YouTube, is that they automatically upload the lecture once it is done. This means that learners will have access to the content even after the lecture is complete.

In addition to streamed lectures, there is a plethora of valuable learning content available online. Imagine a group of motor mechanics students watching a video of a mechanic taking apart and then putting together an engine, or a group of paramedic students treating a wounded person in virtual reality.

Technology will not just enable the minister’s vision, but will enhance it to levels beyond anything possible in a traditional classroom setting.

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