Beyond Matric

By Glenn Ashton · 18 Jan 2011

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Picture: Bo Mackison
Picture: Bo Mackison

Another class of matriculants have completed the ritual of examinations followed by the highs and lows of success or failure. So where do we expect these young people go now? Is our educational system capable of preparing our youth for a future in an uncertain world? 

Without even bothering to venture into the minefield of questions raised around the latest matric results, we really need to consider just how antiquated our educational system really is when looked at against the rapidly changing world and workplace into which school leavers are thrust.

The hopes of parents who have scrimped and saved to provide a decent education for their children are increasingly dashed against the realities of work demands made by employers who miraculously expect applicants with not only skills but also job experience. 

Our dysfunctional school system is incapable of providing most youngsters with more than rudimentary training for life. The discredited outcomes based system is an expensive memory of a failure to acquire real life skills. This is all backed up by the fact that adults under the age of 35 represent 72% of total national unemployment.

Most matriculants cannot even change an electrical plug or a tap washer let alone fill in a tax return or grow potatoes. Neither can most contribute to constructing their own houses, let alone building the future of our nation. 

School leavers are depressingly incapable of providing work for themselves, dealing with bureaucracy or navigating the pitfalls of independent entrepreneurism. 

Our educational mindset is depressingly locked into producing employees, not employers. This is an anachronistic throwback to the colonially derived educational model. It remains perpetuated by the neo-colonial mindset that people must be trained to labour in factories and offices and maintain a corporate-friendly infrastructure. 

Where are school leavers meant to get work or training in an economic climate that favours jobless growth, where capital and profit expand while labour and work opportunities shrink? Our parents and grandparents model of “jobs for life” – where school and university leavers expected to join a corporation, the public sector or family businesses and be guaranteed to leave 35 years later with a gold watch and a pension – is a distant dream, a discredited paradigm. 

Our post-democratic focus on racial equality has simply reinforced the focus on this outdated paradigm by accepting the lie that this redundant system remains somehow viable. 

Despite years of talk, vast amounts of money and (dysfunctional) training programmes, we have failed to provide proper vocational training or begun to instil a belief in youngsters that they can make it on their own. 

Even as the government releases its latest iterations of the National Skills Development Strategy, NSDS 3, together with associated job creation strategies, we remain locked into the same old same old that demonstrably does not and cannot work in our modern, changing world.

The working environment is changing at breakneck speed. US Department of Labour statistics show the average school leaver had four jobs by age 22; a graduate will have held five. This pattern is repeated around the world. In Australia nearly one in five employees have been in their job for less than a year; more than half of 25 – 45 year olds have shifted into totally new careers. 

It is bitterly ironic that our rigid unionised labour forces have failed to grasp this nettle of change. Instead of encouraging adaptability, both our labour market and training SETA’s are inflexible, bureaucratic dinosaurs.

Studies around the world highlight vocational flexibility and on the job training. Skills are required that enable people to adapt to changing job circumstances and to maximise initiative instead of obeisance. 

Even additional years of university study are not necessarily the key to gainful employment, or at least the type of work that students envisaged. As the rather tired joke goes, you need at least a BA to become a waitron in Cape Town. Even then, prior work experience is required! 

Insufficient attention has been paid to the far more realistic, useful and necessary training focused towards hands-on expertise as opposed to university based theoretical education. We have seriously neglected and failed to train artisans, technicians, teachers, nurses and farmers, as well as those needed to service the emerging green economy. These are the people who will not only keep the country running but who are practically capable of building real things.

The ongoing debacle of the SETA’s illustrates the victory of rigid indecision and caution over visionary boldness. The vast resources available to SETA’s, coupled to their failure to mesh with existing further education and training (FET) facilities demonstrates the depth of this inertia.

The new minister for advanced education, Blade Nzimande, has achieved little besides the publication of yet more theory - NSDS 3 - that may or may not work. Our established pattern of endless rounds of dialogue, studies, lekgotlas, workshops and strategic planning give rise to yet more theoretical strategic outcomes, which seldom meet their planned expectations anyway. And who is to worry? There is bound to be a cabinet reshuffle that takes the heat off the incumbent.

While the NSDS does recognise some shortcomings in our educational system, we still need to ask whether an ideologue is the right person to transform the training of an increasingly restive youth into a self-motivated and self-starting bunch of go-getting cadres? Surely there is a disconnect here? Instead of “carpe diem” we have a generation plodding off to a long dark teatime of the soul.

We remain trapped by our blinkered outlook, exemplified in recent government public relations spin that “we can do this together.” Since when has any government been able to provide sustainable jobs, besides growing a bloated civil service? The very concept of reliance on state partnership and support is anathema to fundamental changes in perspective to gainful employment.

Kgalema Motlante’s recent contrarian statement that our broad sense of entitlement must be dispelled is a welcome counterweight to the stultified thinking of leadership. He is correct that the state simply cannot continue to provide houses, social grants and endless infrastructure without concomitant contributions by the citizenry.

A partnership is required but the sense that “Pretoria will provide,” the legacy of the old regime, remains far too strongly ingrained. Creating work requires going beyond extolling misleading “work opportunities,” which only serve to create more dependence, while simultaneously increasing anger and frustration amongst our youth over any visible lack of change.

Meaningful educational changes must produce school leavers who are confident and who are capable of taking their own chances in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. We each have our own gifts, our own talents; these must be nurtured and encouraged. 

Given the present structural instability of global capital markets, surely it is time to move away from the diminishing chance that we are able to depend on the partnership between the corporate capitalist machine and the benevolent state for our individual security? 

By the time youngsters leave school they should at least have gained a sense of their inherent abilities. It is dangerous to perpetuate the sense of dependence on the state or the dominant economic system.

Students need to be taught to take responsibility for their own future by assuming responsibility for their own lives. Practical training enabling youngsters to maximise their own individual potential must be readily available, not the tired prescription that “you will get a job after studying hard,” which has failed almost an entire generation. 

Without inculcating fundamental self belief and without empowering it through focussed creative imagination we cannot hope to chisel our niche into the most rapidly changing society the world has ever seen. If South Africa wants to be a global player, it needs to start thinking big, not just acting big. 

If we fail to change how we view education and training we can never hope to deal with our terrifying backlog of unemployed and largely unemployable young people. 

In order to liberate the power and creativity of youth we need to encourage people who cherish and embrace independence, not minions who remain locked into neo-colonial thinking that fosters and perpetuates dependence. We need people capable of believing in themselves, not in others, to lift them above their circumstances.

If we remain stuck in our outdated, dependence focussed neo-colonial paradigm – of which our school system, our meaningless matriculation farce and our universities are all exemplars of the problem, not the solution – we will never break the cycle of hopelessness, of not only unemployment but of unemployability. Only through breaking this mould can we create a nation of leaders capable of shaping the future of this challenging and uncertain world.

But then again, perhaps our leadership is scared by the very thought of such radical change?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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