Re-imagining secondary education: Voices from South African academic and vocational secondary education programs

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Global discourse on secondary education and vocational skills development offers a narrative which emphasizes increased use of standardized testing; a focus on science, technology, business knowledge, and vocational skills development; and identifies expansion of access to secondary and tertiary education as a solution to poverty, inequality, and unemployment. In South Africa, academic and vocational secondary education is largely shaped by this discourse, which is grounded in the assumptions of human capital theory and privileges the perpetuation of an elite model of secondary education. Apartheid-era practices of racial segregation and racial capitalism, while legally dismantled, still have a significant influence on the political economy of modern day South Africa. This influence includes the distribution of power, resources, and opportunities articulated through South Africa's public education system.

This study draws on critical social theory and political economy to understand existing constructions of academic and vocational secondary education in South Africa, including how these constructions dialectically relate education to work and society. The purpose of this study is to allow grassroots voices, teachers and learners at two schools in marginalized communities in South Africa, to "talk back to discourse" about the purpose of secondary education. How do learners and teachers define purpose? Many see secondary school as a place for students to learn about themselves and education as a means to realizing their dreams, even if their dreams are only, as yet, partially formed. This study offers a humanistic counter-narrative to the dominant discourse by sharing the dreams and holistic development interests of learners and the hopes and frustrations of teachers as they learn and work within an inhumane and narrow construction of education, work, and society.