The DBE’s new GEC could be a dropout game changer, or exacerbator

Recently, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) published its Annual Performance Plan for the next financial year. Of particular interest to the Zero Dropout Campaign in the plan is the implementation and progress of the new General Education Certificate (GEC) pilot.

According to the DBE’s plan, “The GEC recognises formal learning that has occurred by the end of Grade 9 in fulfilment of the promotion and progression requirements in the NCS for Grades R to 12.” This new certification has been conceptualised as a Level 1 qualification in terms of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and will be one of two official exit points for learners. However, the DBE insists that it is not meant to encourage them to leave school prematurely. Instead, the GEC aims to provide learners who complete Grade 9 formal recognition of the compulsory phase of their schooling and create three opportunity pathways — academic, vocational, and occupational.

The DBE is currently piloting the GEC in 1,000 schools and in its performance plan, has asserted that, “Achieving virtually universal completion of Grade 9 by 2030 seems realistic. The expected introduction of the GEC (nationally) in 2025 would ensure that every young South African leaves the schooling system with a national certificate.”

A question that remains regarding the GEC’s purpose is whether the proposed ten years of education will be sufficient to impart the critical skills needed to meet the increasing requirements of our higher education institutions and employment market. Last year, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) found that approximately 3.7 million (36,1%) young people aged 15-24 years were not in employment, education, or training (NEET). Of these NEET youth, 48.3% did not have a matric qualification, which severely hampers their employment potential as, according to Stats SA: “Most often employers prefer to employ those with previous work experience and a higher level of education.” By contrast, only 40.7% of NEET youth had completed matric and this plummeted to less than 8% for those who had some tertiary education and less than 3% for graduates. So, judging by this data and similar trends, priority should remain ensuring that as many learners as possible obtain the Nation Senior Certificate or an equivalent and progress to higher education or training to empower them to successfully participate in our communities and economy.

Currently, approximately 40% of children in South Africa who begin Grade 1 will not obtain their National Senior Certificate (NSC or matric), most of these learners drop out of school between Grade 9 and 12. So, providing these learners a rudimentary qualification at Grade 9 seems like a well-timed intervention. However, if not implemented with supportive policies and programmes to prevent learner dropout and provide alternative pathways to further education and employment, the GEC could inadvertently formalise the very phenomena it aims to address.

The further education options that the DBE has alluded will lead from the GEC must therefore be accessible, affordable, and with enough support to empower learners to graduate with skills relevant to the rapidly changing world of work. We will continue to monitor the GEC’s piloting and implementation, and eagerly await future updates from the DBE.