Ill-defined hurdles obscure
WHEN academics and people involved in technical training met in Johannesburg last week to discuss problems with the smallest building blocks of the government's new education system, what they spoke of was so arcane that their conference went by unnoticed.
The snag is that what they had to say means that the very foundation of the government's new system for technical training is questionable.
This means prospective employers, among others, have no way of knowing how much people studying basic literacy and numeracy up to level four (matric equivalent) on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) actually know. The NQF is a structure created to range registered South African qualifications.
Most of these students are studying at, or through, the 70000-odd further education and training providers in SA, and this basic numeracy and literacy training generally forms part of a wider qualification in anything from hairdressing to becoming an electrician.
In other words, the South African economy is crying out for technically trained people, but no one knows how much basic literacy and numeracy people studying for technical qualifications are being taught. Worse, it is suspected this may be the case in at least some of the other subjects these students are studying.
At the heart of the matter lies â€œunit standardsâ€. These little knobs of knowledge are hard to define, but the Cement & Concrete Institute has done a good job: "The subjects making up the new qualification are bundled into unit standards. These are meaningful clusters of outcomes of learning for which the industry wants to give recognition. Each unit standard clearly sets out ... specific outcomes, each with its own assessment criteria."
Research presented at the conference by Umalusi, the statutory body responsible for ensuring quality in general (school) and further (technical college and adult basic) education, shows that the unit standards for courses in fundamental English and mathematics are so poorly written and vaguely understood that not even those who use them daily have a grip on what they mean.
And, while Umalusi's research looked only at what was going on in fundamentals training, the body suspects the same problem might exist in the other subjects students have to study.
"We have our suspicions". This is just the beginning of our research into what's happening at these (further education) colleges," says Umalusi CEO Peliwe Lolwana.
This is only a problem if training is all about South Africans being able to use one qualification to move on to another and become â€œlifelong learnersâ€. This has been punted by President Thabo Mbeki and is harped on by several cabinet ministers.
Confusion over unit standards means more and more sectoral education and training authorities and training providers are demanding that those who enter learnerships have a senior certificate, thereby obviating the need to even teach the fundamentals, says Umalusi research director Matseleng Allais.
This belies the purpose behind the colleges, which are offered by the government as an alternative education route for those who do not have a matric, or who do not want to complete the last three years of school.
Umalusi has recommended that these courses should have a prescribed curriculum and that at least 50% of the assessment (examination if you want to use a less politically correct word) should be done by an external assessment body.
Allais said courses set up by industry groups were often externally assessed and Umalusi believed there was less of a problem with these courses, but the body still believed there was a problem with unit standards.
"Many occupational (subjects) do have external examination, but we suspect unit standards are equally problematic in these other courses. We're not saying the whole education system doesn't have standardisation, but the system we've set up, which says prescribing learning outcomes will solve our problems, is not working," she says.
Independent consultant Sebolelo Nomvete's list of about 10"challenges" regarding the fundamentals courses include that there is no general understanding of what they mean, that it is difficult to ascertain what people know because the way in which unit standards have been interpreted means there is wide variance in what is taught.
Also, sometimes those who decide what the standards mean sometimes aim too high, setting students up for failure, and those who do offer occupational qualifications have begun opting for the easy way out by making a senior certificate a prerequisite for entrance to the course.
(Edited by Admin User - original submission Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 6:35 PM)