Three Streaming Basic Education: Cure or Crutch?

The Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga handed over Dorrington Matsepe Primary School in Kroonstad, the 100th ASIDI school to be completed, the vision of providing conducive teaching and learning conditions for our teachers and learners remains imperative. 30/04/2015.


Although the South African Department of Basic Education (DBE) optimistically trumpeted that the  “Three Stream” curriculum model will drastically reshape the education system, Minister Angie Motshekga gave it only the barest of mentions in her May 2016 budget vote speech. As of yet, details are scarce about how this model will be implemented in schools, and documentation supporting the specifics of the proposed curricula has yet to be brought to the public for comment.

The new scheme was formulated to channel learners into different educational tiers or “streams” from the beginning of 2017: two streams – general (academic) and vocational before Grade 9, and then three different streams – academic, technical vocational, and technical occupational – from Grade 10 to 12.

In a presentation at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation on 23 February 2016, the department predicted that the academic stream will absorb less than 40 percent of students within five years of implementation, with the remaining 60-plus percent channelled into either the technical vocational or the technical occupational stream. According to their projections, 228 schools will be equipped to offer vocational or occupational subjects by the end of this year, with that number planned to double each year until it reaches 14 592 schools by 2022. Currently, only 58 schools are equipped to offer the technical occupational curriculum.

There are a number of issues that ought to concern the public. The implementation of the reforms is set to be piloted next year, but the full curriculum content for the technical occupation stream has not yet been published for public comment. Delaying the release of information until just before the plan is to be implemented gives the public limited time to engage effectively with the proposals, and suggests that what is finally released will go ahead regardless.



The DBE’s stated motivation is the high dropout rate, which currently stands between 40 and 50 percent per age-cohort of learners. In a radio interview, the department’s director-general Mathanzima Mweli stated that learners drop out of school “because they’re not academically inclined” and “end up nowhere in terms of contributing to the economy of the country”. By introducing additional streams, the DBE aims to curb the rate of dropouts by catering to a wider range of student capabilities and needs.

However, it is simply untrue to say that learners drop out because of a lack of academic inclination. Leaving school before completion can be attributed to social factors related to the poverty and dislocations that many learners experience at home, as well as the capacity of the school itself to provide the requisite level of learning and teaching support to prepare the learner for grade graduation.

Another stated objective is to assist more post-school youth to find work, or to equip them to create their own when no jobs materialise. Framed within the notion that a technical skills gap is holding back economic development in South Africa, this is seen as a mechanism to cut unemployment and stimulate economic growth. In this sense, the curriculum reform may be read as an economic programme rather than one that has been developed for the personal development of each child.

Beyond this, and considering South Africa’s high youth unemployment rate, it is necessary to ask whether streaming basic education can actually attenuate some of the socio-economic problems we face.



An analysis of the technical skills training currently offered in South Africa shows that the new scheme stands to render social and economic inequalities more impermeable than before, and that the promised economic benefits will likely prove illusory if not combined with rigorous state planning in line with industrial development.

Vocational education used to be available in South Africa through an apprenticeship system, with technical colleges providing theoretical grounding. Each year, apprentices would spend three months studying at a technical college and the remainder in a work placement. After the transition to democracy in 1994, education and training was split between the ministry of labour (responsible for skills development) and the then ministry of education. The department of labour terminated the apprenticeship programme as an outdated example of narrow trade training, and the department of education stepped in with a new curriculum and qualification for the technical colleges. The National Certificate Vocational (NCV) entails full calendar years of study at what are now called technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

The 1998 Further Education and Training (FET) Act allowed for technical colleges to become FET colleges under provincial authority. These offer vocational post-school studies as well as a vocational alternative for school learners from Grade 10 to 12. TVET Colleges are effectively an additional stream to the education system, albeit run by the national department of higher education and training (DHET).

With the passing of the FET Colleges Act in 2006, the NCV expanded and broadened vocational training curricula through a massive restructuring. The government wanted to focus on “general vocational programmes, which support the development of vocational skills with a breadth of knowledge and a strong general education foundation”.


Cunningham and Villaseñor reviewed 24 studies from around the world of the skills desired by employers. Skills were grouped into four categories:

  • socio-emotional skills, such as teamwork, leadership, trustworthiness, responsibility, honesty and work ethic
  • basic cognitive skills, such as basic literacy and numeracy, academic knowledge and comprehension
  • higher cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, information processing and analysis adaptation
  • technical skills, such as job skills, the specific knowledge required to carry out an occupation.


Averaging 12.7 percent, technical skills were not at the top of the list, even where there was the greatest shortage of skills. Across all the studies, socio-emotional skills ranked highest, with 50.8 percent, while higher-order cognitive skills came in at 29.7 percent and basic cognitive skills at 6.8 percent. The authors note that this pattern applies across the board: “The aggregate patterns hold up when dividing the sample by region, industry (manufacturing vs. service firms), occupation (managers vs. workers), and education level for the workforce; socio-emotional and higher-order cognitive skills emerge most strongly for each sub-group”.

The NCV curriculum has been in place for about ten years, but it has not had the effect of substantially improving skills, nor has it catalysed any notable gains in economic development. As noted, the new courses were without precedent, requiring a lot more from students and lecturers alike. Many lecturers were ill-prepared for the demanding changes, being unfamiliar with the more diverse curriculum, or lacking the requisite pedagogical expertise. It stands to reason that knowing one’s trade does not translate into being able to teach it. As a result, the quality of teaching and the reliability of assessment have often been poor.

Moreover, the broader focus, which includes theoretical components and some general education, is academically challenging. It does not necessarily provide a simpler avenue of study. Poor education in primary and early high school phases leaves learners unprepared for success in technical fields just as much as in academic ones. The combination of poor teaching and challenging courses results in many students not progressing to the next year of study. The rates of those who graduate with a full qualification (having completed NCV levels 2, 3 and 4) are severely low. In 2009, 8 216 learners graduated with level 2, while 789 received their NCV level 3. However, the total enrolments in 2009 were 93 293 candidates for NCV level 2 and 24 637 for level 3 . This suggests that there is a completion rate of as little as 8.8 percent for NCV level 2 and 3.2 percent for level 3.

TVET college graduates do not leave with particularly high levels of skills and they face high rates of unemployment because the NCV courses have low market value. Kraak  attributes this to “supply-led” curriculum reform that is designed without consulting industry or relevant employers about the actual skills they require.

These deficiencies all signal red flags for the Three Stream system: TVET institutions were too weak to adapt to a new technical curriculum; lecturers were unprepared and ill-trained for the changes; and graduates have consequently experienced little or no improvement in their employability. Learning deficits accumulated early on prove to be equally potent obstacles to technical education as to general education. The new system is likely to face all of these obstacles. The low completion rates clearly indicate that introducing additional “streams” is no silver bullet for curbing drop-out rates or preparing learners better for the working world.



The proposed curriculum change remains a supply-side intervention. Yet where unemployment is already high, as in South Africa, developing a more skilled population does not create a demand for their labour. “With slow demand for new job seekers,” as Amsden states, “further investment in skills may simply force people to hire themselves at starvation wages, as in many micro-enterprises. If more money is poured into tertiary education, graduates are likely to add to the educated unemployed or to migrate abroad“.

This is not to say that education is not important, but that education reform should be coordinated with other state measures that actually create demand for labour, along the lines of job creation, infrastructure development, developing natural-resource beneficiation value chains, industrial policy, good borrowing rates and greater capital investment in enterprises – much in line with the developmental state model.

Countries like Germany, the Netherlands and the “Asian Tigers” have found that greater social protection and equality, produced in coordinated economies with a greater role for the state in regulation and the provision of social goods, had a stronger relationship with skills formation than did liberal laissez-faire economies. This suggests that the idea that South Africa’s economy is held back by low levels of technical skills misframes the debate by positing a one-way relationship where skills shape the economy. In reality, the economy has a massive effect on the types of skills that are relevant and how they are developed.

For this reason, it is critical that ministries communicate, budget and plan programmes for development together. For a revamp of the technical skills system to be effective, the national departments of education and the department of labour must coordinate their work around human resource development.


In reality, de facto streaming already occurs in South Africa, but it is determined more by school resources than learners’ personal aptitude. One in four schools in South Africa do not offer mathematics in Grades 10 to 12, severely limiting matriculants’ opportunities for further study. Most of these schools are in poorer provinces, the former “homelands” or bantustans. Only 43.7 percent of high schools in Mpumalanga and 63.4 percent of schools in the Eastern Cape offer mathematics, due to teacher shortages or low pupil enrolment in the subject. Learners who attend well-resourced schools with better facilities and teachers are more likely to perform well. Thus assessment scores reflect educational opportunity, not merely academic ability.  

One can only imagine that the new scheme is likely to reproduce and institutionalise existing social and economic inequalities. If streaming is based on assessments, learners from poorly-resourced schools in poor and working class communities will be disproportionately placed in vocational and occupational streams. Ultimately, this will limit their employment options and class mobility.



The problems faced by TVET colleges point to general deficiencies in South Africa’s education system, including deep-seated administrative, infrastructural and teacher-related problems. According to National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) 2015 data: 452 schools have no water supply and 4 773 have an unreliable water supply; 913 schools have no electricity supply and 2 854 have an unreliable electricity supply; and 10 419 schools still use pit latrine toilets (Department of Basic Education, 2015). The Three Streams model does not address issues of infrastructure provision, resourcing and teacher training. In fact, it places greater demands on a system that is already failing: many schools will need new workshops and equipment, as well as newly trained teacher-artisans.

With so little information available, it is difficult to gauge whether this scheme is as radical as the DBE would have us believe, let alone whether the department has the capacity to achieve 14 592 schools offering technical subjects in five years. At the time of writing, no project lists, implementation plans or budget allocations are available to the public and the curriculum for the technical occupation stream has not even been published for comment. As far as we know, this project could simply be a cosmetic “rebranding” that obscures the dire state of schools and their very real needs.

Far more rigorous monitoring, evaluation and oversight in implementation of all the variables is necessary to make the education system more functional. Government needs to focus on strengthening education at its foundations: prioritising early childhood development and providing schools with adequate infrastructure and well-trained teachers.



All of which is not to say that technical skills are not important. As economist Nimrod Zalk says, “You can’t have a boilermaker who has wonderful ‘people skills’ but doesn’t know how to make a boiler”. It is also possible that the research in Cunningham and Villaseñor undervalued technical skills by surveying employer responses but not their actual hiring practices.

However, technical skills should not then be taught as a second-best option but introduced at an appropriate age as part of a broad package of skills. The best results in technical and occupational education globally have been achieved with a mix of experience-based and theoretical learning within a supportive environment that helps to develop all groups of skills – emotional, social, cognitive and technical. It is only this that will equip tomorrow’s graduates with the requisite skills to adapt to a diversifying economy, and vice versa.

By Claire-Anne Lester and Daniel Sher