Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
With the release of the latest matric results, we can say with some satisfaction that 2014 produced 403 874 successful matriculants. On behalf of the IFP, I congratulate every one of them. Having cleared this hurdle, the question for each of them is surely, "What now?"
A small percentage will enter university in 2015 and some will enter FET colleges. But, for most, the next priority will be looking for work. So perhaps the success of our education system is less about how many passes it produces, and more about how many young adults are able to participate in the economy and labour market straight from school.
Our education system should be designed to provide the skills our economy and labour market need. It is a simple formula of supply and demand that dictates how many school-leavers will find employment. Our country's high levels of unemployment indicate that supply surpasses demand at this point. But I have no doubt that we could increase employment levels, and economic growth, by designing the supply in a way that would increase demand.
By this, I mean producing school-leavers who are immediately employable, have a marketable skill or entrepreneurial capacity, and a grounding in labour ethics.
This approach has worked before. When I led the erstwhile KwaZulu Government before 1994, my administration looked at what was needed for the benefit of South Africa and South Africans in the years to come. We realised that that generation of learners would inherit a democratic country and needed to know how to administer it, participate in it and contribute towards its success.
We therefore included "Good Citizenship" classes in our school curriculum, which not only provided an understanding of governance, democracy, social justice and human rights, but addressed practical matters from ethics in the workplace to the principles of saving. One must remember that, at that stage, the majority were excluded from participation in the economy to such an extent that few had even experienced opening a bank account.
The harvest of what we sowed during those years through our schools in KwaZulu is evident even now, twenty years into democracy. Many of the present business and political leaders, and the working journalists, analysts and academics, went through our schools in KwaZulu. Whether they mention it or not, the schooling they received under Inkatha enabled them to become active, competent and influential participants in South Africa.
The challenge to Government under its present political leadership is to do the same; to look at the economy and the needs of the years to come, and mould the education system to produce future active participants.
To my mind, it is self-evident that we need entrepreneurs in a labour market in which formal, fulltime employment is in short supply. We need to teach this generation of learners entrepreneurial skills and business ethics. I find it worrying that 2014 saw decreased performance in the usual areas of Maths and Science, but also quite notably in Business Studies.
The Department of Basic Education has assured us that the new curriculum places greater emphasis on cognitive skills, resulting in a better quality pass. This is good, but we need to develop the specific cognitive skills that create business-minded entrepreneurs.
The findings of Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, make it clear that underperformance in Business Studies is a significant problem in our schools. In their report for 2014, they state: "Although there were no changes in format and structure and only slight changes in content, the learners really struggled with the 2014 examination… The performance was the worst compared to any other year and so an upward adjustment was done."
In other words, unlike subjects in which so much has been changed that we had to give learners a few extra marks for sake of fairness, performance indicators were bumped up for Business Studies simply because this subject is weak in our overall education system. That does not bode well for tomorrow's employers or tomorrow's economy.
Surely this is an area we must focus on to ensure that our school-leavers are both confident and competent participants in the economy. The problem behind this poor performance must be identified, so that we can shore up the weaknesses, offer support where it is needed and develop an environment is which business expos targeted at learners become as prolific as science fairs in America.
This will allow our youth to connect with business people long before they have to knock on that first door the year after leaving school. It will open the way for work experience through internships, shadowing and voluntary service, all of which open doors and help young people carve their own path.
The other thing we did in KwaZulu prior to 1994, and even afterwards, was to have vocational schools, like Emandleni-Matleng, where learners gained practical skills at the same time as receiving basic education. School-leavers would thus already be trained in farming, for instance, and would already have experience, enabling them to work from day one.
For the sake of food security and to boost the future of farming in South Africa, the IFP has called on the class of 2014 to study agriculture. This is another area on which far more emphasis should be placed.
Clearly if this Government is to offer what an IFP-led government offered, the functioning of FET institutions will need to be fixed.
Interestingly, several commentators on the matric results have looked at the new phenomenon of "group copying" that emerged in 2014 and made the connection between a corrupt political leadership and a corrupt education system. "Group copying" is different to cheating in which one or two learners are involved. It is where learners in an examination centre were clearly capturing dictated answers. Because it would be too obvious if learners in those centres received 100%, some dictated answers were intentionally wrong.
"Group copying" is evidence of pressure on teachers to produce higher marks at any cost. The question is: where is the pressure coming from? Is it political pressure?
There is certainly an enormous amount of political pressure on the Department to produce continually improving pass rates. It is not unthinkable that this pressure would in turn be brought to bear on schools, principals and teachers.
The IFP has highlighted how politically charged our education system actually is, with members of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union having spent much of their time in 2014 campaigning for votes for the ruling party. SADTU's political affiliation is the reason the IFP continually calls on the IEC not to put SADTU officials in charge of voting stations; a call which is yet to be heeded.
It is also why we have called on the Minister to review employment practices, minimising or eliminating the observer status of teacher unions during interview processes. Cadre deployment simply puts the wrong people in positions of authority based on their political association.
Putting people in jobs they can't do is similar to promoting failed Grade 11 learners to Grade 12. We cannot be surprised when they struggle, despair, cheat or fail. These learners need our support. What they don't need are shortcuts that allow politicians to look good while futures are jeopardised.
Almost 129 000 Grade 12 learners failed in 2014. I urge them to consider taking supplementary exams. Even if this is not an option, this is not the end of the road. Try to get an internship. Get some work experience, even if it is poorly paid and seemingly menial. Above all, keep studying, even on your own from books in the library or by talking to skilled people.
Your teachers may have told you that what you do today will determine your prospects for tomorrow. That stays true long after Grade 12. It's a formula for life.
Yours in the service of our nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP