October 06, 2019

Maritime high schools for maritime careers – a subject for debate

ARE maritime high schools the best way to prepare South Africa’s young people for maritime careers and develop local skills for the oceans economy?
ARE maritime high schools the best way to prepare South Africa’s young people for maritime careers and develop local skills for the oceans economy? The South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) takes up the debate and considers lessons that can be learnt from the model of the 25-year-old Lawhill Maritime Centre at Simon’s Town School.

The solution to growing the pool of skilled people needed for a thriving oceans economy – be they seafarers, engineers, artisans, lawyers, fishers, educators or scientists – may lie in some combination of maritime awareness programmes and formal maritime school education. There isn’t yet a perfect solution or correct answer to what this combination might be.

What is clear to SAIMI though, from our involvement in supporting some of the new maritime high schools, is that providing quality education in this highly specialised area takes clarity of vision and purpose, a structured approach and thorough planning, willingness of all parties to learn, and a coordinated effort that involves the maritime industry and the education authorities working together towards a mutually beneficial goal.

Offering learners the opportunity to take maritime subjects to matric was intended to raise awareness of the oceans economy, its diversity and myriad career opportunities, opening new study and career pathways for the youth. The logic being that growing and localizing the oceans economy requires a wider, and deeper, skills pool; and that existing players in the South African maritime economy need a reliably constant pipeline of new talent, for sustainability and to feed potential growth.

On the other hand, some argue that simply creating more maritime schools is not a solution in itself; that there aren’t enough properly trained and qualified, knowledgeable and experienced educators to teach these subjects effectively and lead successful implementation of maritime education at high school level. And further, that while there are individual success stories, the shipping sector’s employment opportunities aren’t wide enough to absorb the products of these schools.

The argument follows that attention should rather be placed on creating maritime awareness through practical initiatives – a mix of recreational, educational and community-focused activities – and media content targeted at the youth: engaging, shareable, informative, and highlighting the broad spectrum of the maritime world in all its interesting and diverse possibilities.

The new wave of maritime high schools

In the wake of government’s Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy initiative aimed at kick-starting growth in this arena, several high schools around the country were designated as maritime focus schools and began offering the two existing maritime school subjects of Maritime Economics and Nautical Science. The new subject of Marine Sciences was piloted for Grade 10 in 2019, at Lawhill and two other Western Cape schools, and is being implemented this year – a welcome addition that broadens maritime career options.

Brand-new maritime high schools are also on the cards: The Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) issued a request for proposals in December 2019 for the planning and construction of a new maritime focus school in the Umlazi district of KwaZulu-Natal.

Providing the specialist maritime programme over three years from grades 10 to 12 requires quality teaching and learning – led by enthusiastic, knowledgeable and experienced educators – so that learners have a fair chance of passing these subjects in the National Senior Certificate examinations and are able to apply with confidence for suitable vacancies within the shipping industry or for tertiary studies in any number of maritime-related fields.

However, the new wave of maritime schools have yet to reach their stride. Many candidates do not perform well in the examinations, while others might pass but emerge lacking a grasp of the “softer skills” – positive attitude, work ethic, integrity, self-discipline, willingness to learn – at the uncompromisingly high standards required particularly by the shipping industry.

A number of factors provide reasons: the subjects are in their infancy in the designated schools, there may be a lack of equipment and teaching materials, learners may be finding the maritime context too unfamiliar or lack practical exposure to the maritime environment while at school. But the key gap is seen as a lack of thorough teaching in the maritime subjects. In general, educators are being expected to make the shift to teaching maritime economics and nautical science with very little experience or exposure to the maritime world themselves.

The will is certainly there – the Department of Basic Education and the relevant provincial education departments support the roll-out of the maritime subjects and the establishment of maritime high schools. SAIMI, along with agencies such as the Transport Education & Training Authority (TETA), the National Sea Rescue institute (NSRI) and the General Botha Old Boys’ Bursary Fund, and companies such as AMSOL, are partnering with some maritime high schools and collaborating with education authorities to support the schools. Current initiatives include partnerships to publish and supply textbooks, supplying equipment and learning and teaching resources, funding maritime education courses and offering workshops for teachers, and extra lessons and holiday camps for learners.

The question is – are these initiatives sufficient to boost the quality of maritime learning and teaching at these schools? And would efforts and resources not be better applied to bringing existing maritime high schools up to par, rather than continuing to designate more maritime schools?

Maritime un-awareness

To a large extent, educators and learners are in the same unfamiliar boat, due to South Africa’s decline as a maritime nation, lacking in a maritime culture, exposure to the maritime industry and awareness of the oceans environment.

This is the result of many factors, including:

  • Remoteness from the sea – in rural areas, both inland and at the coast, and even for those who live in a coastal or port city but have no easy transport to the sea or to the harbour.
  • The decline of the once-thriving local shipping sector, especially after the sale of Safmarine to foreign owners in 1999 – resulting in less awareness of the maritime sector as a route to career and business opportunities.
  • The closure of harbours to the public following the introduction of the ISPS Code, with little thought given to allocating areas open to the public for recreation or viewing of shipping and cargo activity, which would contribute to stimulating interest in the maritime world.
  • In that regard, the airline industry has stolen a march on the maritime industry. Every airport has public viewing areas from which aircraft take-offs and landings, and activities on the apron, can clearly be seen – no doubt developing an interest in many a young future airplane pilot.
  • Similarly, as air travel has replaced sea travel, few young people get the opportunity to travel by sea or visit the harbour to meet or see off relatives and friends – an experience that can spark and shape future interests.
  • And while the broad scope of the oceans and related industries have much to offer in terms of interests, recreation and careers, there is a lack of maritime-themed books, TV programmes, movies, superheroes and anti-heroes and other media content with youth appeal.

Employment prospects – bad news, and good news

Although a steady number of successful learners do decide to embark on maritime careers, others who have also done well instead change their career options away from the maritime environment.

While the oceans economy offers a wide variety of career options, much focus falls on shipping and some grand designs for South Africa to offer a pool of skilled seafarers to the global industry. In reality, the targeted numbers of Operation Phakisa are not being achieved, and employment opportunities in the shipping industry have not lived up to expectations.

Amongst other reasons, including general global economic considerations, there is a shortage of training berths for cadets and a shortage of positions for junior officers, particularly since Maersk Line’s announcement that it would no longer employ South African cadets or junior officers. Seeing their older classmates unable to get berths in ships despite even qualifying as deck or engineering officers, a number of bright young people change their career options away from seafaring.

Maritime employment opportunities for young South Africans have also been negatively impacted by:

• The decline in the local ships’ register – especially after the sale of Safmarine and other shipowners leaving the South African registry when government failed to enact legislation favourable to attracting shipowners to the local flag and facilitating local ship-owning. Attractive conditions for ship-owning can lead to more shipping activities in South Africa, opening up more career opportunities, but the decline in the ships’ register has closed this avenue. Safmarine and Unicorn once employed over 2 000 seafarers and hundreds of people ashore. A very different scenario is evident today.

• The swing towards the employment of Asian and East European officers and crews at the expense of South Africans, the traditional recruits of Safmarine and Unicorn. (This also applies to vessels recently flagged in South Africa, and even to some on charter to parastatal South African operations.)

• Employment opportunities for local seafarers are also reduced by the chartering of foreign-flagged vessels (with foreign crews) to carry coastal cargoes, such as the coastal movement of petroleum products and container shipments. A similar situation applies to major mineral exports (especially coal, iron ore and manganese) and to the import of crude oil.

All is not gloomy, though. New opportunities may open for maritime-related careers, such as the superyacht sector where an increasing number of South Africans are employed.

In addition, the Southern African offshore sector is poised for growth via the Mozambique gas-field, as well as the various potential oil- and gas-fields now being examined. Among these is the Brulpadda gas-field south-west of Mossel Bay where, if its promise becomes reality, a new economic boom could be unleashed, With that will come the need for offshore services that include the initial installation of undersea pipelines, as well as the vessels needed to service the offshore facilities. A formula for success?

Despite the difficulties, there are good news stories. A young man who once herded livestock in rural Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape became the first Lawhill alumnus to obtain his Unlimited Master’s Certificate. Four more have followed in his wake to this highest global maritime qualification.

Thanks to Operation Phakisa and gradually rising awareness of opportunities in the maritime sector, such stories of young people whose rise out of poverty has come via maritime education are becoming more commonplace. Some of them emanate from Lawhill, some went through high school with no exposure to the maritime sector and stumbled upon their future careers almost by accident.

If maritime high schools are to be the enablers of more young people finding their future careers in the maritime world by purpose rather than by accident, then they need to focus closely on – and be properly equipped for – what it takes to achieve success in maritime education.

As South Africa’s first, and for a long time only, maritime high school, Lawhill has a story to tell that can provide useful pointers towards a model for maritime education at school level.

The origin lies in a 1995 pilot project partnership of Simon’s Town School and Safmarine to foster maritime awareness and prepare learners for careers at sea and in the shipping industry ashore. Marking its 25th anniversary this year, Lawhill has since led scores of young South Africans into worthwhile maritime careers, many of them from rural areas, financially disadvantaged backgrounds and with little previous exposure to the sea or the maritime industry.

The initial partnership with Safmarine set the stage for one of Lawhill’s key success factors – the ongoing practical and financial involvement of leading maritime industry players, from corporates to philanthropists such as the TK Foundation, authorities such as SAMSA and Transnet, and non-profit organisations such as the General Botha Old Boys’ Bursary Fund, SAMTRA and the Master Mariners Society.

The first maritime subject syllabi were developed in 1996 by a committee drawn from the shipping industry and tertiary maritime training institutions, with a view to practical application and narrowing the gap from school to further education and training. (Similarly, the curriculum for the new Marine Sciences curriculum was developed in a partnership of the Two Oceans Aquarium education team and the Department of Basic Education.)

Today, a number of long-standing relationships add value to the school’s ability to offer a well-rounded maritime education, helping to provide facilities, equipment and experiences that are often beyond the means of most school budgets because of the high cost of sea-based activities and advanced technology used in the maritime industry. The education programme includes regular exposure to the maritime industry through mentoring and practical experiences, guest lectures, site visits and tours, opportunities for learners to participate in training voyages, attend local and international exhibitions and conferences, as well as extra-mural activities such as sailing, rowing and water safety. Partner organisations also provide support such as bursaries, educational camps and workshops for learners, and funding for equipment and teaching and learning resources.

Other factors that have played a role include the provision of boarding accommodation, enabling access for learners whose homes are far from Cape Town, and while Lawhill is a specialised centre it is still part of a public school rather than being a stand-alone institution.

Lawhill has volumes of stories to tell about the achievements of its past pupils, and has been globally recognised for the success of its maritime education model – from the Lloyd’s List Salute to Youth and Training Award, received in 1999 in London, to the Seatrade Award for Maritime Education and Training for Asia, Middle East and Africa, awarded in Dubai in 2018.

Careful planning and curriculum development with involvement of the maritime industry and tertiary maritime institutions; taking industry needs into account in the education programme and having ongoing and close industry involvement in the school; and securing the services of knowledgeable, energetic and hands-on experienced educators – these are the key elements of a formula that can be applied to achieve success in the new wave of maritime high schools.

About the author

Issued by Odwa Mtati - SAIMI CEO; with assistance of Brian Ingpen - Lawhill

SAIMI – Sam Venter: 082 4515 292 / project.office@saimi.co.za

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