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Twelve years in South Africa's schools
5 February, 2018

This is a story about South Africa’s schoolchildren, specifically the ones who enrolled in grade one in 2005 in one of the thousands of public schools around the country. In an ideal world, the majority of those children would have emerged at the end of 2016, after 12 years of schooling, with a national senior certificate (what used to be known as a matric). But this is far from the reality.

Each of the circles below represents 3,000 pupils.

Each of the circles below represents 7,000 pupils.

In 2005, just over 1.2 million children started their school careers in grade one.
Six years later, in 2011, those children should have been in grade seven, their last year of primary school. But one in four of them didn’t make it to grade seven in 2011. The biggest drop – more than 150,000 pupils – was between grades one and two.

When the class of 2005 started high school (grade 8) in 2012, their ranks were swollen by an extra 23,500 learners. These children were most likely repeaters – children who had failed grade eight the previous year and were doing it again.

About one in every three children in South Africa has to repeat a grade at school, research has shown. The highest number of repeaters are in high school and they peak in grade 10. About one in four pupils is likely to be repeating grade 10.

It is compulsory for learners to stay in school until the age of 15, which means they should finish grade nine. Roughly one in 10 learners drop out of school after finishing grade nine, although not necessarily at the age of 15. There are a high number of repeaters. One in 10 children will have repeated a grade at least three times.
After grade 10 the numbers drop sharply. By 2016, the grade ones of 2005 should have made it to grade 12, But what started as a class of 1.2-million had shrunk to just over 650,000, which means at least 45% of the class didn’t make it to grade 12 within 12 years.
And of those who did make it, one in every three in the grade failed the national senior certificate exams.
And only one in every four who wrote the grade 12 exams in 2016 got a university pass.
Looking at it another, simplified, way: imagine the 1.2 million pupils who started grade one in 2005 are represented by these 100 circles.
In 2016, at least 45 of the original 100 pupils would not yet have reached grade 12. 19 would have reached grade 12 but would not pass the year. 36 would make it to grade 12 and pass the matric exams, but only 13 of them will achieve a university entrance pass.
Many of the students who don't make it through to grade 12 within 12 years will still reach, and pass, matric a few years later. Research shows that about 53% of South Africans successfully complete grade 12, but some are in their late 20s when they write their exams. For example, in 2017 about half the people who wrote the exams were older than 18 years, and 766 of them were 27 years old.
Passing matric and getting a degree or diploma is not a guarantee of success in life, but achieving those qualifications does improve school leavers' chances of being employed.
People who don’t pass matric are likely to find it the hardest to get a job. One in three people (33%) without a matric are unemployed. If you pass matric you're more likely to find a job: 28% of people with a matric are unemployed. But if you get a tertiary qualification your chances of finding a job increase significantly. Nine out of 10 people (93-95%) with a university degree are employed, as are four out of five people (83%) with some other tertiary qualification, according to figures published by StatsSA.


School Realities Reports, 2005 to 2016, Department of Basic Education, downloadable here and here.

Report on progress in the schooling sector against key learner performance and attainment indicators, Department of Basic Education, August 2016.

Grade repetition in South Africa: facts, figures and possible interventions, Social Survery and Centre for Applied Legal Studies, 2010

Financial statistics of higher education institutions for 2016, Media Presentation, Statistics South Africa, October 2017 and Quarterly Labour Force Survey Q3:207, presentation by Dr Pali Lehohla

2017 National Senior Certificate Examination Report, Department of Basic Education, January 2018

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Research & Data: Laura Grant
Visuals: Alastair Otter