Radical overhaul proposed for schools in South Africa – including new subjects and tests

 ·29 Oct 2020

The World Economic Forum says that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

In such a rapidly evolving employment landscape, it said that the ability to anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements, job content, and the aggregate effect on employment is increasingly critical for businesses, governments and individuals – to fully seize the opportunities presented by these trends, and to mitigate undesirable outcomes.

South Africa’s education system and current school curriculum does not equip learners with the right skills or education for the fourth Industrial revolution (4IR).

As a result, schools are being transformed with a focus on technology to better prepare students for a working world in which they are expected to have a firm grasp of subjects such as coding and artificial intelligence.

In a report published this week, president Cyril Ramaphosa’s 4IR commission – composed of 33 experts and 60 different groups – said that the Department of Basic Education started a process in 2015 to align the current Basic Education System with the needs of the 4IR.

“It may be said that although these competencies are embedded in our curriculum, as a country we are not seeing the results. This points to the problem potentially lying with the delivery and teaching of the curriculum as the point of breakdown,” the commission said.

Challenges include a lack of resources (human capital expertise, strategic capacity, financial resources), teacher re-orientation and training and direct linkages to industry to facilitate job market uptake for school leavers.

To address these issues, the commission noted that the department has started to introduce new tech-focused subjects – including robotics and coding.

The commission said that a new model for secondary education is also being developed in an attempt to create pathways for learners to pursue a variety of academic, vocational and occupational directions at school level.

“In some ways this strategy makes the current role of the TVET colleges redundant, or at least requires the TVET system to operate at a higher qualification level to promote continuity from secondary to tertiary to the job market.

“There is also a danger in the implementation of the streaming option that the current inequalities in terms of the spread of skills will persist and in fact be exacerbated,” the commission said.

Changes to subjects and tests

To adequately equip South Africa’s youth with 4IR relevant skills, attention must be paid to foundation skills (literacy, numeracy, digital literacy) and competency skills (creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving), the commission said.

It said that these skills are taught to maximum effect between the ages of 0 – 8 years, meaning that interventions in this regard should preferably take place in the early childhood development (ECD) and foundation phase of learning.

“An approach to be considered is to make use of the current Arts subject in the CAPS curriculum so as not to further burden the system with additional content.

“This subject needs to be re-worked to include practical music-making and arts activities designed for cognitive development. Studies show that early exposure to music and art-based techniques improve abstract thinking and problem solving ability, increase overall IQ and facilitate mathematics and literacy learning.”

The commission said that the arts subject area must become a priority learning area on the same level as maths and literacy and teachers must be exposed to specific subject training programmes in this regard.

If successfully implemented, a new crop of learners who are able to think creatively and problem solve will emerge within a short and measurable period of time, it said. This will have a knock-on positive effect on other foundation subjects.

“A further area of focus is the assessment systems which can no longer only test knowledge retention and memory but need to be able to assess application and interpretation of knowledge, as well as emotional intelligence and core competency skills,” it said.

“An integrated approach to include entrepreneurship within the current subject areas is possible and should also be engaged at the ECD and Foundation phase.”

The commission said that STEM should effectively be replaced by  STEAMIE (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, Innovation & Entrepreneurship) subjects, as students focus on a combination of ‘hard and soft skills’.

Unit standards

The commission said that the role and function of tertiary bodies – such as universities – needs to be re-worked to produce agile, accelerated learning in high priority skill areas for the future of work, as well as to create online learning and short courses for lifelong learning for adults from all walks of life.

Central to this is a review of the accreditation processes and bodies which currently take long periods of time to certify new curricula, it said.

“The South African Qualifications Authority should be urgently resourced to allow the institution to deploy relevant technologies to improve system agility for faster accreditation processing response times.

“As we recommend that the skills development ecosystem needs to be reviewed, at the centre of it is our definition of the Unit standards that may need to be looked at.”

Unit standards are a collection of knowledge, skills and attributes in which a learner must prove competence in a structured assessment to gain credit.

The commission said that there is a need to broaden the definition of unit standards to allow for flexible skills pathways.

“This will allow for the collapse of boundaries between the learning centres and workplace. Learners must be able to easily get recognition for the learning that has taken place outside the traditional learning centres.

“Recognition of Prior Learning as it is always touted as a solution has not worked precisely because of the narrow definition of the unit standards.”

Additional recommendations

The commission also made the following recommendations in preparing the country’s education sector for the 4IR:

  • Prioritise stackable competencies which are micro-credentialed, industry-aligned and allow people to enter and exit the system at multiple points as part of a lifelong learning process;
  • Establish a national project for teacher upskilling in digital literacy, critical thinking and creativity skills. This should include reimagining the role of the teacher in the classroom where they are not the source of knowledge but the facilitators of learning by creating our own solutions that empower the child, the teacher and the parents to support their children irrespective of their level of education;
  • Develop minimum infrastructure recommendation for schools. The commission said that the Department of Basic Education must work towards every school having access to the internet and no less than 25 computers and a printer, a dedicated room as a maker space for robotics curriculum and a basic set of music and art equipment;
  • Rethink TVET colleges roles as microlearning institutions providing 4IR relevant competencies;
  • Leverage the youth demographic to establish South Africa as a nett exporter of skills in the digital economy. South Africa’s large youth population is ideally positioned to provide critical skills to global markets in the digital economy;
  • Invest in strategic projects for mass skills development and industry uptake in high growth potential industries. Initiatives should be scalable for exponential labour market absorption and skills pipeline development. Engage in skills development PPP initiatives across all of the identified high-growth potential industries;
  • A national platform to educate, inform, update on training and other opportunities in the 4IR context should be established. This platform should be an online platform supported by a variety of campaigns in the public domain, events, workshops etc.

Read: More changes planned for South Africa’s schools

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