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President celebrates, but the three-stream model has yet to work

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Picture: ANA file – The South Cape TVET College. The three-stream model, which refers to three pathways – academic, technical vocational and technical occupational – was mooted as the way forward for South Africa in 2018. But it has yet to work, the writer says.

By Edwin Naidu

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has become the poster person for mediocrity. If ever there was someone characterised by inertia, it is Ramaphosa who moves at the pace of a snail, with results that don’t match the smiling talk.

Surprisingly, in January, Ramaphosa expressed satisfaction with the country’s three-stream education model at the Basic Education Sector Lekgotla. It beggars belief that with the hindsight of the matric 2022 results, statistics around youth unemployment, and an admission from educators about children leaving school struggling with maths and reading, he would say he is pleased.

The three-stream model, which refers to three pathways – academic, technical vocational and technical occupational was mooted as the way forward for South Africa in 2018. But it has yet to work.

Should the President call a spade a spade or continue to celebrate mediocrity that has long been the mantra of Basic Education? How else will we become genuine contenders on the world stage if we continue to celebrate nothing? Mediocrity, Mr President, is defined as a person that is not very good at something or not very good at anything in particular, or something that is not very good.

Indeed, you cannot praise a system that annually churns out more than 300,000 people for the unemployment line as something praiseworthy. It is scandalous that the matric system continues to fail South Africans. Yet Mr Ramaphosa says the country is on the right track. That is a denial of the truth. Ask the millions of unemployed youth whether matric has given them a good start to adult life, and they would disagree with the president.

Ask the parents of children who died at schools, falling, for example, into pit latrines, in the 21st century, and they would disagree with him too. What about children drowned in storm drains on their way to school in townships? The growing incidents of violence at schools where children or teachers have lost their lives are alarming. Many schools in the township are in disarray. There is no money to repair them. And the president claims we are doing fine.

He is in cloud cuckoo land.

It reminds one of the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about a vain leader who loved his clothing while his subjects suffered. For those who do not know, it is a tale about two swindlers who arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing. They pose as weavers and promise to make him magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent.

Of course, the emperor hires them, and they get to work. A succession of officials, and then the emperor himself, visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. When they complete the task, they act to dress him before prancing naked before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the charade until a child shouts that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever.

If that sounds familiar, it may not sound as catchy as a story, though the narrative of a naked president would not be out of place in the 21st century.

All could be better in the three Stream Model split into three pathways – academic, technical vocational and technical occupational in 2018. It aimed to prepare the school system for the technological challenges of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Five years later, one cannot, with honesty, label its implementation a success.

The three-stream model aimed to develop differentiated offerings for learners who would respond specifically to the diverse needs of South Africa and the country’s youth. It would also respond to the skills needed for the changing world. Basic Education hopes that the technical vocational stream would improve in producing artisans as part of responding to the National Development Plan (NDP).

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges have tried to create artisans, but the foundation starts with better schooling, contrary to what Ramaphosa says is a mess. Can you gloss over the fact that hundreds of thousands of matriculants are churned into the unemployment scrap heap?

Agreed, South Africa needs more skilled personnel, artisans, like welders and plumbers, than anyone else, said an astute academic recently. She said all pathways need to be reconfigured and strengthened in the post-school tracks to ensure a balance of skills, not skewed skills.

“What is the point of everyone being doctors – who come home to fix the pipe? Or build the cupboard,” asked the head of research capacity development at the University of Pretoria, Dr Rakeshnie Ramoutar-Prieschl.

In pursuing its agenda, the Department sought to partner with the industry, which had a hand in developing the curriculum and was on board in sponsoring and funding the activities related to preparing learners for the world of work.

But would the industry employ people who fail to get a decent pass matric? Reducing the pass rate for specific subjects as low as 30 percent at the matric level is, no matter how you position it, the clearest signal that mediocrity is promoted from the president to the education authorities, ultimately in our schools, which is why South Africa will struggle to make headway in the 4IR.

Ramaphosa said he was happy with the progress in implementing the model in schools and that if learners are given more choices and better guidance, the number of dropouts will decrease. Various technical vocational specialisations have already been introduced in more than 550 schools, and many schools are piloting the subjects in the technical occupational stream.

Ramaphosa is right when he says technical skills are what South Africa needs, and no doubt that the three-stream model tackles challenges and supports the country’s skills needs. But is it addressing youth unemployment? The evidence is not available.

One of the world’s leading think tanks, the Brookings Institute, found that the South African curriculum embraced the skills required for the changing world, essentially the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). It also found that teaching remained challenging because teachers needed to be more adequate.

Partnerships with institutions abroad, like UP, embraced, along with the Department of Higher Education and Training, is the way to go.

Partnerships offer a solution. But first, we must admit, Houston, we have a problem! Do not pretend everything is fine, Mr President.

Edwin Naidu heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.

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