Elementary Schooling: The Basics
Elementary education in South Africa lasts seven years, and requires the completion of grades R (or reception year, which is equivalent to kindergarten) through grade 6. This phase is further divided into two parts, the foundation phase and intermediate phase. Students begin elementary school at six years of age.
- The foundation phase consists of grades R through three, and focuses on subjects such as home language, an additional language, mathematics, and life skills. There are in total between 23-25 hours per week taught in the classroom. The additional official language subject is introduced in grade one.
- The intermediate phase includes grades four to six. The curriculum includes a home language, an additional national language, mathematics, natural science and technology, social sciences, and life sciences. Students in the intermediate phase attend classes 27.5 hours per week.
A number of achievement levels, ranging from 1 to 7, are used to evaluate students’ learning. The lowest achievement level – level 1 – represents a failing grade denoted as “not achieved”, whereas the highest achievement level 7 denotes “outstanding achievement.” These achievement levels also correspond to a 0-100 percentage scale.
Assessment at the elementary level is conducted by each individual elementary school. There are no national examinations, nor is there a formal qualification awarded at the end of the elementary school cycle.
Participation and Quality Constraints at the Elementary Level
Overall enrollment levels in elementary education have increased tremendously in recent years, and the South African government has stated that it is on track to achieve its goal of reaching an enrollment rate of 100 percent in the first year of schooling (reception year) by 2014. Between 2003 and 2013, new annual enrollments in grade R doubled, from 300,000 to 705,000 pupils, according to the numbers provided by the government.
However, the poor quality of education remains a constant theme in South Africa. Despite increased education spending and enrollment levels, South Africa continues to be considered one of the worst education systems in the world. South African students perform poorly compared to students from other countries at comparable levels of development, and dropout rates in schooling are high. According to media reports, about 20 percent of children in elementary and secondary school failed their final year-end school examination in 2015, and only about half of all pupils who entered elementary education continue on to pass the final school-leaving examination 12 years later.
Race, Poverty, and Academic Achievement in South Africa
Racial inequality plays an important role in determining educational achievement. According to the education researcher Nic Spaull, “only 44 percent of black and coloured youth aged 23-24 attained …[upper-secondary education] compared to 83 percent of Indian youth and 88 percent of white youth”. Race also remains closely linked to poverty rates in South Africa. As of 2011, the black population reportedly accounted “for more than 90% of the country’s poverty share”
In recent years, a number of government-subsidized, “low-cost” private schools have opened, in an effort to provide high-quality options to impoverished students in black communities, informal settlements, and urban slums. The curricula at low-fee private schools can be more demanding than public school curricula, and parents often perceive private schools as a better option for their children.
The effectiveness of the private schools is, however, a hotly debated topic in South Africa. While proponents argue that a market-based system does increase educational quality, others object to privatization. As of 2015, an estimated four percent of South African students were in private or independent schools; and an estimated seven percent of schools were independent.
Secondary Education: The Basics
Secondary education in South Africa is six years in duration (grades 7 to 12), and is divided into two phases, lower and upper secondary school.
- Lower secondary (also known as the “senior phase”) lasts through grade 9, and is mandatory. Students typically begin lower secondary at age 12 or 13. The curriculum for lower secondary school includes the home language, an additional language, mathematics, natural science, social science, technology, economic and management sciences, life orientation, and arts and culture. Students receive 27.5 hours of classroom instruction per week.
- Upper secondary, also known as further education and training (FET), lasts through grade 12, and is not compulsory. Entry into this phase requires an official record of completion of grade nine. Just as in the intermediate and senior phases, this phase comprises 27.5 classroom hours per week.
At the start of upper secondary school in grade 10, students are streamed into one of two tracks – academic (general) or technical. Students who select the technical track must be enrolled in a technical secondary school.
In both academic (general) and technical routes all students must study seven subjects. Four subjects are mandatory regardless of stream. These include two official languages, mathematics (mathematics courses differ in scope between the two tracks), and life orientation. Students can select the remaining three subjects as electives. Students are advised to study subjects that they might be interested in pursuing in higher education.
Graduation depends on performance on a final exam, the National Senior Certificate or “matric,” at the end of grade 12. Those who earn a second level or “higher certificate” pass (described below), but who do not score high enough to continue on into diploma or degree-granting institutions of higher education may enroll in a bridge year, or grade 13, at an accredited institution.
NOTE: Drop out numbers at the secondary level, particularly in the final year, are high. According to DHET, “About one million young individuals exit the schooling system annually, many … without achieving a Grade 12 certificate. Half of those who exit the schooling system do so after Grade 11, either because they do not [enroll] in Grade 12 or they fail Grade 12.” (Additional detail below.)
Examinations: The National Senior Certificate and the Independent Examinations Board
The National Senior Certificate (NSC) or “matric” is a national, standardized examination, which represents the final exit qualification at the end of Grade 12. The NSC replaced an earlier exam known as the Senior Certificate. Students can earn one of four levels of pass when they sit for the matric. If their scores are high enough, the test qualifies them for higher education.
From lowest to highest. the four levels include:
- A certificate pass: Per the South African Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training (Umalusi), the NSC pass is a “baseline” that “serves little purpose other than providing the learner with a school leaving certificate, and perhaps signaling to employers that a basic level of home language competence and numeracy have been achieved.” To obtain an NSC pass, students must pass three subjects – including home language – with a minimum pass mark of 40 percent; and three with a minimum pass mark of 30 percent. Six out of seven subjects must be passed in order for students to receive an NSC pass.
- A higher certificate pass: This second tier of pass does not qualify students for all types of post-secondary education, however it does enable access to certification programs that will prepare them for the work force, or with access to academic “bridge programs” – year 13 – offered by accredited institutions.
- A diploma pass: A diploma pass is the third tier of NSC pass. It is the minimum requirement for entry into tertiary level programs that grant diplomas rather than full degrees.
- A bachelor’s pass: A bachelor’s pass is the highest level of NSC pass. It represents the minimum requirement for admission to bachelor’s degree programs at South African universities. Universities may set minimum score requirement scores that are higher than the legal minimum pass. Certain programs may only accept students who achieve high marks in relevant subjects.
Umalusi is responsible for the administration and issuing of these and other educational certificates. Umalusi verifies certificates issued by the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).
The IEB administers exit examinations for private schools. The IEB administers a version of the NSC, which is viewed as a more rigorous assessment than the government-administered version taken by most public school students. A 2009 UK NARIC benchmarking exercise reportedly found that at, some advanced levels, the IEB is comparable to GCE A level standards.
High School Completion: A Complex Picture
Overall upper-secondary attainment rates in South Africa are higher than in many sub-Saharan countries, and have increased considerably in recent years – between 2005 and 2015 the percentage of South Africans older than 25 with upper-secondary attainment increased from 39.6 to 48.5 percent, according to the UIS. Participation and progression rates nonetheless remain problematic, and are below those of other countries at comparable levels of economic development.
Official statistics on student achievement can be confusing. According to the South African government, for instance, the overall pass rate in the 2013 NSC examinations was 78.2 percent, with 439,779 out of 562,112 pupils passing the exam. Due to high drop-out rates however, between the senior and matriculation phases, this relatively high pass rate masks low upper-secondary completion rates. One 2015 study found that about 50 percent of upper-secondary students dropped out of school before graduation, mainly in grades 10 and 11.
Moreover, only slightly more than one third of those students who pass the final matriculation examination presently achieve sufficiently high grades to be admitted to university, and not all of these students end up being accepted. What this means is that only a fraction of current age cohorts in South Africa go on to enroll in tertiary education – in 2014, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio in South Africa was a mere 19.4 percent. High dropout rates at the secondary level are mirrored at the tertiary level, where reportedly only half of those that initially enrolled go on to eventually graduate