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Should we let students graduate high school at 15?

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The government of South Africa and some educators believe earlier assessment would address the country's high drop out rate after completing Grade 9. Source: Shutterstock

The South African government is proposing a General Education Certificate (GEC) for students who complete Grade 9, in which the average age of students is 15 years old.

This would make it possible for students to “graduate” with the GEC serving as an indication of competence in the job market.

Addressing criticisms that the move would encourage more students to drop out, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga clarified that the GEC is to show the completion of one phase of schooling, not of completing school.

“We are not talking about anything new. And people should not put anything into our mouths…I never said kids must exit the system,” she told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Basic Education in October, according to News24.com.

“A certificate does not mean exiting a system. It means exiting a phase.”


Currently, South African high schools issue a school leaving certificate at the end of Grade 12.

With the introduction of the GEC, students would gain a certificate that acknowledges the competencies they have gained in their 10 years of schooling, as well as to proceed to three learning pathways. They can either continue with academic studies, specialised vocational studies or occupational work-based qualifications, according to Dr Moses Simelane, the Department’s Chief Director for Curriculum.

“We want to align the three-stream model by increasing the number of focused schools, mapped against special economic and industrial zones, the 10 of them which we have in the country,” he said.

“We will be increasing the number of maths and science schools, agricultural, engineering, aviation, mining, media, maritime, high tech, commercials, tourism/services, schools of skill, arts and sports school[s] of excellence.”

The move is aimed at addressing the country’s high drop-out rates after Grade 9, many of which remain unemployed for years. Students have also shown that they wanted a tertiary qualification in the form of a certificate, diploma or university degree upon completion of Grade 9, as found in a 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science study.

Writing for The Conversation, Nhlanhla Mbatha, Professor of Economics at the School of Business Leadership (Unisa), University of South Africa, argues that the additional testing for the GEC is a good move that could lead to better “quality and structure of education in ways that support youth employment and the economy”.

Assessing students in Grade 9 instead of Grade 12 would mean “the quality of education offered at lower grades in the schooling system will improve,” he wrote.

“The assessment would, for example, force schools and teachers to spend more resources and effort at lower grades to prepare pupils better for the Grade 9 certificate exams. They currently make this kind of effort for the Grade 12 certificate.”

With the new certificate in place, this would also incentivise vocational and training colleges in the country to improve their quality and management, writes Nhlanhla, as these institutions will be given a more prominent role in the education system. Currently, only four percent of students intend to apply at Further Education and Training colleges after Grade 9, according to the 2015 survey.

“With more public and private sector focus on these colleges they would be forced to respond to job market needs better than they do now. The Grade 9 certificate would contribute to improving the colleges’ responsiveness to market demands,” he wrote.

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