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Exploring adult basic education and training as a transformative learning space for alienated out-of-school youth in South Africa


Adult education and training (AET) was always a neglected part of South African education. In the mid-1990s, the South African government sought to change this by introducing a number of policies that prepared the way for adult basic education (ABET) to become part of the formal educational system, and to attain its official status as a formally recognised qualification pathway. In 2013, the government’s redistributive response to this pathway’s past marginalisation was to incorporate AET in the national qualifications framework (NQF) as a system parallel to basic education for children. These policies introduced a shift in the function of AET from providing opportunities for the acquisition of literacy, especially for ethnically marginalised adults, to offering a formal qualification and the opportunity for out-of-school youth to improve their work opportunities. This changed status of AET created a second-chance educational opportunity for out-of-school youth to complete their general education as well as an opportunity to further their education. An interesting phenomenon is that, whereas these youthful, non-traditional AET students had a troubled history with formal schooling, they seem to be successful in AET. Based on her narrative interviews with youthful, non-traditional AET learners, the author of this article looks at how they navigate second-chance education and investigates what facilitates these learners’ educational success.


Exploration de l’éducation de base et de la formation des adultes en tant qu’espace d’apprentissage transformateur pour les jeunes marginalisés non scolarisés en Afrique du Sud – L’éducation et la formation des adultes (EFA) a toujours été un domaine négligé de l’éducation sud-africaine. Au milieu des années 90, le gouvernement sud-africain a cherché à changer cette situation en introduisant un ensemble de politiques qui préparaient le terrain pour que l’éducation de base des adultes (EBA) fasse partie du système d’éducation formelle et obtienne le statut de parcours qualifiant reconnu officiellement. En 2013, pour apporter une réponse redistributive à la marginalisation passée de cette voie, le gouvernement l’a intégrée dans le cadre de qualification national, faisant d’elle un système parallèle à l’éducation de base des enfants. Ces politiques ont introduit un changement dans la fonction de l’éducation et de la formation des adultes : elles, qui permettaient à l’origine à des adultes marginalisés en raison de leur appartenance ethnique de s’alphabétiser leur donnaient dès lors aussi la possibilité d’acquérir des qualifications formelles, tandis que les jeunes en rupture de scolarité pouvaient désormais élargir leur champ professionnel. Ce changement de statut de l’éducation et de la formation des adultes a offert une seconde chance professionnelle aux jeunes décrocheurs en leur permettant de terminer leur scolarité générale et d’approfondir leur instruction. Tandis que par le passé, la scolarité formelle a donné du fil à retordre à ces jeunes apprenants atypiques dans la filière de l’éducation et de l’apprentissage des adultes, il semble, et ce phénomène est intéressant, qu’ils réussissent dans la voie de l’éducation et de l’apprentissage des adultes. S’appuyant sur les interviews narratives réalisées auprès de jeunes apprenants de ce type, l’auteure du présent article examine comment ils manœuvrent dans l’éducation de la seconde chance et explore ce qui facilite leur réussite éducative.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Apartheid is the Afrikaans term for segregation, and refers to a system of institutionalised ethnic segregation that was in place in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

  2. 2.

    While the acronym AET refers to the educational field of Adult Education and Training, ABET refers to the programmatic title of the concept being implemented in South Africa.

  3. 3.

    We arrived at this selection by testing an initial sampling of centres that had a reputation for excellence against actual performance in quantitative terms related to recruitment, retention, throughput, and assessments and examination results.

  4. 4.

    Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, funded this multi-case research project on the efficacy of selected adult learning centres.

  5. 5.

    The exit level qualification at the end of AET Level 4 is called the General Education and Training Certificate (GETC). The purpose of the GETC is to provide a qualification and certificate to learners who exit schooling and are entering the world of work. It is the equivalent of a Grade 9 qualification.

  6. 6.

    A South African township is a suburb or neighbourhood , or “group area”, where only people of a particular ethnicity were able to reside, as designated by apartheid legislation.

  7. 7.

    Narrative inquiry is a qualitative research method that involves collecting information through storytelling.

  8. 8.

    Knowledge is constructed through a person’s experiences with his or her environment. Thus, a social constructivist approach takes into account that rather than being an individual experience, learning is collaboratively “constructed” with other people in a process of social interaction.

  9. 9.

    Epistemological refers to the theory of knowledge, especially in terms of methods, validity and scope.

  10. 10.

    Ontology is the study of existence. Thus, my “ontological stance” refers to my acknowledgement of their realities of growing up in economically marginalised communities.

  11. 11.

    Intersectional theory asserts that, in combination, aspects of a person’s social identity such as ethnicity, class and gender lead to unique forms of oppression for that individual. As such, it does not make sense to engage with such identity markers as discrete strands of influence.

  12. 12.

    I use the term “dialectic process” to position myself as the one not knowing and holding a different view from the marginalised participant. Thus, the dialectic process enacted through interviewing allowed for a discourse between the participant and myself to establish the truth through questioning and narrations of their experiences.

  13. 13.

    Today, regular formal schooling in South Africa is organised into nine years of general education and training (GET), with children entering the first of seven years of primary school (Grades R–7) when they are seven years old. Secondary (or high) school comprises five years (Grades 8–12). Attendance is compulsory (albeit still not free of charge) up to Grade 9. The Department of Education is currently preparing the introduction of a General Education Certificate (GEC) to be issued to students who have completed Grade 9. At the end of Grade 12, also known as matric, students sit the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams, in order to qualify for entry into universities and colleges.

  14. 14.

    The NQF framework consists of 10 levels, of which NQF Level 1 covers General Education and Training (GET), NQF Levels 2–4 cover Further Education and Training (FET), and NQF Levels 5–10 cover Higher Education and Training (HET).

  15. 15.

    At the end of each academic year, the senior educators moderate each Grade level’s marks. In some cases students’ marks are adjusted to allow them to be promoted to the next grade. This is known as a condoned pass.

  16. 16.

    Specific to South Africa, “Model C” schools were former whites-only government schools.

  17. 17.

    The numbers gang has its origins in South African prisons, with members and networks on the inside and outside of prison. It consists of the 26, 27, and 28 sub-gang groupings. A number 26 gangster is involved in robberies, smuggling and other monetary-related crimes.

  18. 18.

    Also known as meth, blue, ice, and crystal, methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

  19. 19.

    Transformative forms of resistance build up the sociality of the learner. AET pedagogy makes use of dialogue and problem-posing mechanisms that encourage adult learners to become co-educators and owners of their own knowledge.

  20. 20.

    This prison only has male inmates.

  21. 21.

    As explained earlier, matric refers to the final year of high school, i.e. Grade 12. When students have a Grade 9 equivalent pass, they can register for Grade 12 subjects as privately enrolled students and attain their National Senior Certificate (NSC).

  22. 22.

    Part of the regular school curriculum in Grades 10–12, “Life Orientation is the study of the self in relation to others and to society. It applies a holistic approach. It is concerned with the personal, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, motor and physical growth and development of learners and the way in which these dimensions are interrelated and expressed in life. The focus is the development of self-in-society, and this encourages the development of balanced and confident learners who will contribute to a just and democratic society, a productive economy, and an improved quality of life for all” (RSA DoE 2003, p. 9). According to Erna Prinsloo, “The curriculum of the Life Orientation (LO) learning area forms an excellent basis for equipping learners to respond positively to social demands, assume responsibilities, and optimise their life chances” (Prinsloo 2007. p. 155).


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Daniels, D. Exploring adult basic education and training as a transformative learning space for alienated out-of-school youth in South Africa. Int Rev Educ 66, 363–385 (2020).

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  • adult education and training (AET)
  • out-of-school-youth
  • South Africa
  • low literacy
  • adult learner
  • new-generation adult learner
  • public adult learning centres (PALCs)