“When your child has no idea what course of study he or she wants to undertake at tertiary level, when they are clueless about which subjects to choose for Grade 10, when their future career choices flip-flop between rock star and radiologist, breathe out.”
In fact, says Bernice Dexter, Reddam Bedfordview’s life orientation educator, because it is so confusing, and ramifications are long-term, she starts discussing possible career choices and subject choice years before decision time in Grade 9. And even then it’s usually still baffling for many.
“First and foremost,” she says, “there is nothing wrong with going to a TVET college – a technical college – to learn a trade. These can translate to top salaries. But it’s undeniable that a degree is held in high esteem. If a student has decided on university as an option, I start by telling them universities don’t care how nice a person they are. ‘They just want your brain,’ I tell my students.”
And brain power, she says, in the eyes of the university admissions departments at least, is reflected in the number of points they get in matric. More recently, for many universities, these points are looked at in combination with their National Benchmark Test results, which they will also write in their matric year.
“What they need, most of all, to keep as many options open as possible, are good grades,” says Dexter.
Rezana Hoosain, Career Counselling and Assessment Programme Co-ordinator in the Counselling and Careers Development Unit at Wits University, agrees that confusion is fitting.
“It’s developmentally appropriate for Grade 9 learners to be unclear of their career paths – they’re still developing their own identities,” she says.
“Choosing subjects for Grade 10 can be a challenging time for both parents and learners, as decisions may have an implication on what career they can pursue or not.”
She says before choosing, it’s useful to explore where the learners’ career interests lie, even if they’re unclear on which career they’d like to pursue.
“They should also assess their abilities in various subjects as well as their strengths and weaknesses,” she says.
Aptitude tests may help, says Hoosain. “Learners may consider a subject choice assessment – these are psychometric tools that are used to narrow down career fields. They’re offered at some universities or by psychologists in private practice or at schools.”
Dexter says her Grade 11s all do two days of job shadowing to help them make more informed decisions about future careers.
Both Hoosain and Dexter agree that parents and learners should gather as much information as possible on careers and the subjects that are required for the different career fields. “Look at the entry requirements for particular courses at the various universities and universities of technology.”
But, says Dexter, parents need to understand they are there as a support and should try to hold back some of the pressure despite their anxiety. “It’s the child’s future,” she says.
Maths is usually the sticking point for many. Seen as the ‘gateway subject’ to medicine, engineering, science or finance, Dexter says it will give students access to more career options than maths literacy.
Science is also known as a gateway subject for those wanting to study medicine, chemical, civil or electrical engineering as well as complete a Bachelor of Science.
Common sense suggests if you’re good at maths, continue with it. If you don’t like maths, but you perform adequately in it, continue anyway. If you don’t enjoy it and if you’re performing badly – even with extra help, drop it for maths literacy.
“Even though choosing maths literacy may close many doors, opting for pure maths is not useful if it’s going to drag your points down,” Dexter says.
Hoosain says if the learner is certain that a humanities degree is what they want to pursue, then they can give up pure maths.
“They just need to make sure that they know that maths literacy may limit some choices, so the learner is not shocked when they reach Grade 12 and are applying to tertiary studies to discover they need maths for their chosen course.
“It’s important for learners to research the different career fields to help guide their choices. For example, if a learner would like to pursue a career in science, engineering or health sciences after Grade 12, usually mathematics, English, life sciences and/or physical science are needed.
“But,” she says, “not everyone has the desire to pursue maths or science-related careers.”
Many humanities degrees, including Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Law and a Bachelor of Social Sciences don’t require pure maths. Neither do structured diplomas in the performing arts and creative arts.
Director of Schools Development Unit/Schools Improvement Initiative at UCT’s School of Education, Dr Jon Clark says: “While dropping maths means you limit your choices, nobody is going to enjoy studying engineering or accounting if they don’t like maths. Also, I don’t pooh-pooh maths literacy as a subject. It’s well intentioned and for most, it’s usually more useful to know how to do your taxes than how to master geometry.
“‘If you’re not performing well in Grade 9 in maths and you don’t enjoy it, it may be a signal that you’re not suited to courses that require it. Maths is not for everyone.”
He says there’s no value in failing a subject. “Besides anything else, it’s bad for self-esteem.”
He agrees with Dexter that choosing subjects “should never be the choice of the parent”.
Clark advises: “If you have the luxury of choice, choose an area of study where you can imagine some career satisfaction.”
But, he says, this idea of a career for life is an old-fashioned notion. “Things are much more fluid these days. An architect may decide later in life she wants to be a chef, while I know of a few former engineers doing a post-graduate diploma so they can teach instead.”
While Dexter says some tertiary educational institutions prefer to start from scratch in subjects like accounting, Clark says those students from township schools will benefit by being exposed to the subject before they reach university.
And even if a student completely changes their mind later, Julie Plester, spokesperson for Master Maths – an IEB registered organisation that offers maths and science lessons – says all is not lost: some students decide to upgrade their maths marks or study the maths they left behind in Grade 10.
“It usually takes about two years to get through the school curriculum,” she says.“It can be done in one year but that’s a real push.”
Dexter says there are three main things parents and students should know: the requirements for the university degree they’re thinking about, that students keep their options open as far as possible, and that they should take subjects they love, which is more likely to reap better results.
Panic is futile. As Hoosain says: “Career decision-making is a life-long process and as the learners grow and develop, their choices will become clearer.”
Did you know?
A recent study by the HSRC (2017) shows only 1.3% of South African Grade 9 mathematics pupils scored at an “advanced level of achievement”.
Globally 6% of pupils were at this level.