The stepchild finds its vocation
A qualifications revolution will be launched in South Africa on April 22 - but it is likely to pass unnoticed by the world's media.
The birthday of the South African Qualifications Authority looms. The authority will develop the national qualifications framework, similar in concept to Britain's vocational qualifications.
When President Nelson Mandela made the South African Qualifications Authority Act law last October, the event failed to make front page news, just as the launch of NVQs failed to excite British newsdesks a decade ago.
Yet further education and adult basic education are a vital part of both Masakhane (which means "let us build together") - a government programme aimed at stabilising a society which had boycotted mortgages, rents and education .
South Africa's 15 technikons (equivalent to our former polytechnics) and 125 technical colleges will play a key role in implementing the NQF, but with different facilities and finances.
FE in Britain is called the Cinderella service, and in South Africa it is known as "the stepchild", says Sarel van Wyk, principal of Pinetown Technical College and chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Committee of Technical College principals.
"Technical colleges in South Africa are by far the most cost-effective education institutions, but up to today we have not received meaningful recognition from the educational authorities."
Examples of the varying fortunes of technical colleges are seen throughout KwaZulu-Natal. There is a township college with a multi-million rand expansion programme, but a freeze on staff recruitment. Another has a new library but no books. And the former Indian pupil-dominated ML Sultan Technikon in Durban is succeeding against all the odds.
Technical colleges and technikons, often formerly the preserves of white, Indian or coloured students are coping with a massive influx of black students from a population struggling to make up for the education boycott which produced the "lost generation". Yet there is an even greater problem finding black staff.
Rick Andries, vice-principal of Cato Manor Technical College outside Durban, said: "My black students come to me and ask 'When will we get our black tutors?' and I just haven't got an answer."
The answer may be provided by the ETDP (education, training and development practitioners) project under the auspices of the national training board. A significant number of industries also have their own training boards.
Another initiative, the training-the-trainers programme designed to cope with the black student explosion, was explained by Jeanne Gamble and Judy Haines, ETDP co-ordinators from the University of Cape Town.
They are attempting to move away from the prevailing "chalk and talk" regime. Ms Gamble said: "We have teachers who have never taught this kind of learner and learners who have never been students before."
Many fear that further education, which could make or break the new system, is not getting any government support.
Industry is providing a lead in basic adult education. At the electricity industry's training centre in a Cape Town suburbs, nearly 2,000 black employees are benefitting from personal development plans. A mature student who had been with the company for 18 years, said: "I am now getting a chance I never dreamed of before."
There is a positive attitude towards the challenges facing further education, particularly in the National Party-run Western Cape Province, despite cuts which have removed 6,000 lecturers' jobs.
This is exemplified by two progressive Afrikaans-speaking principals of small technical colleges outside Cape Town, Hannes Koen, of Westlake Technical College, and Cassi Kruger, of South Peninsula Technical College, Muizenberg.
At Westlake there is a modular system of engineering and allied training . "I don't want to sound over-confident, but I believe we're ready," said Hannes Koen.
Cassi Kruger believes there has been a change in attitudes: "In the old days we went out of our way not to appoint black staff - now we are going out of our way to appoint them." Although 60 per cent of his students are white, that is a marked change from a few years ago.
There is a will to make the new system work. But old values remain. One college in KwaZulu-Natal and one in Western Cape still hold beauty contests - but a blonde white girl does not always win.
Bob Norris is a governor of Chichester College of Arts, Science and Technology. He visited South Africa in March as part of a delegation from the Further Education Development Agency