The introduction of technical and vocational streams of subjects for ‘students not interested in, or suited to, academic studies’ has been welcomed by many as a solution for our ailing basic education system.
Industry and the private sector have been particularly vocal in their approval, hoping these alternative tracks in school will produce the artisanal and practical competencies they perceive as lacking in existing school leavers.
That’s all very well and good, but we must not fail to heed the stratification effects of such curriculum designs. Unfortunately this policy is is an excellent example of a short-term ‘quick fix’ rather than the necessary long term, difficult process of changing what is fundamentally flawed in the system.
Those who hope such a move will get young unemployed students working by equipping them with practical trade skills have good intentions and legitimate concerns. Our youth unemployment rate is shocking, and socially unstable. The quality of what the vast majority of our children receive at school is unacceptable. These concerns are not the issue with this policy.
Rather, the exact problem is highlighted by the experience of Onke Sibeko, a recent technical subject matriculant who then discovered his subjects did not gain him access to academic higher education institutions. Onke is not the last victim of what is effectively stealth Bantu Education by class.
Bantu education was an oppressive system designed to separate and stratify school students, using curriculum of differing levels of difficulty and with different value for further education. The State enforced sorting by race, condemning people of colour to inferior education that trapped them in semi-skilled labour. The economy loved it: guaranteed cheap labour kept business profitable, and the colour bar kept people ‘in their place’ so to speak. Race was firmly aligned with class.
One of the ambitious policy goals of NEPI and the ANC yellow book in the 1990s was that all could have access to academic forms of learning, irrespective of colour. Bantu education curricula were scrapped in favour of the idealistic OBE, which failed not because its principles were wrong (OBE thrived in well resourced and staffed schools) but because the staff in the system were not trained or prepared for such an ambitious learning project. The roll out of OBE was not accompanied by the training that apartheid era trained teachers required to deploy it effectively.
The over inflated status of academic learning
Querying whether academic subjects should be as highly valued as they are is an important concern. There is a wealth of education sociology research that foreground that such value is premised on scarcity, not content. The evidence of this is academic inflation. Access to school has become almost universal (as it should be), but massifying a system based on relative scarcity rather than individual competency was always bound to drive up the stakes of schooling.
The work of Teese and Polesel in Australia shows exactly this: each generation since the 1940s has had to get more years of schooling just to stay afloat. Before, high school was enough. Now university is barely sufficient. And those at the top of the advantage hierarchy become ever more creative in strategising how they distinguish themselves from the throng of aspirant ladder climbers who always threaten to catch up, if not surpass, them academically. Taking extra subjects. Playing sports. Volunteering. Participating in school leadership structures. Jane Kenway’s analysis of elite international schools revealed how international travel and voluntourism (i.e. working for free, because you can afford to) have all become markers of ‘academic distinction’ in a schooling climate where the basics are just no longer enough.
So the valorization of subjects purported (falsely) to embody ‘problem solving skills’ is a slick one-two. These subjects are desirable precisely because they have a high failure rate, thereby signalling a perceived ‘difficulty’ and, by proxy, the supposed competency of the student who succeeded. The maths and science curricula at school do not encourage ‘problem solving’, as any first year university maths lecturer will testify. They predict, rather, a student’s advantage at playing the game of school.
The myth of meritocracy
What constitutes ‘advantage’? We know that ‘performance’ at subjects perceived to be ‘hard’ is most predicted by class (and, not unrelated, language of the home). That is: well resourced homes, with two parents, two incomes, parents who themselves hold higher education qualifications, where the language of the school is spoken in the home, books, computers at home, and a general early socialization into the behaviours and practices expected by school… all these factors mean that the students who ‘do well’ are middle class children.
Students struggling with academic subjects struggle not because of their innate ability, but because of the family they were born into.
Now, instead of the State declaring poor children must take vocational and technical subjects (as was the case in the apartheid era), thereby condemning them to a working class orbit for the rest of their lives, families are unwittingly pressured into self-selecting such fates, duped by the myth of meritocracy that does not bear out in evidence.
Onke is surprised his ‘technical’ maths and science don’t gain him access to engineering at UCT and UWC. Whoever told him that it would, lied to him. And anyone surprised that ‘technical maths’ does not sit on equal footing with its academic equivalent is naive.
Our over valuing of academic subjects is part of the problem. But this will continue as long as such subjects are the gateway to prestigious economic opportunities and higher income jobs. In a country as unequal as South Africa, to introduce streaming as a short-term fix at the end of the academic pipeline is tantamount to Bantu Education by class: the poor will be funnelled into such streams, while the wealthy continue on to high-earning realms of the economy. And just like Bantu Education, it is unsurprising that private sector industry loves the move, as it guarantees a pool of labour for low earning jobs.
What is the alternative? Surely we need artisans as much as we need academics?
Absolutely. The critique here is not a denigration of the important work that many artisans do. We cannot function as a society with a population of lawyers. One could compelling argue that people who build homes, make food and care for the sick are actually more socially valuable than financiers and investment bankers (see, for example, Costas Lapavitsas’ book “Profiting without Producing-How Finance exploits us all“).
But while the work of the plumber, the bricklayer, the tiler, the builder, the baker continues to be under paid and under appreciated–that is, while our economy remains structured as it is–these new curriculum streams are a subtle form of class segregation that will exacerbate our existing inequality.
Rather, we should elevate the status of such work first, before condemning people to it. We should respect–and remunerate–these forms of labour far better than we do. And we must also ensure that every child has the opportunity to master any form of knowledge they choose based on their interests and their strengths, including academic forms of knowledge.
Without these prerequisites in place, we risk even further instability. Students like Onke, sold a false promise of an education that then is under-valued, will realise the lie they have been sold. And quite rightly be angry about it.