School life of young South Africans spans over 13 years or grades. The first year of education, Grade R (reception year), is not compulsory. Grades 10, 11 and 12 are also not compulsory. Children usually enroll into grade 1 at the age of five and a half. In South Africa, the school year starts in mid-January and ends at the end of November or the beginning of December.
In 2007, there were 26,065 ordinary primary and secondary schools with 12,401,217 learners and 394,225 teachers:
- 15,358 primary schools (grade R to grade 7), with 6,316,064 learners and 191,199 educators;
- 5,670 secondary schools (grade 8 to grade 12), with 3,831,937 learners and 128,183 educators; and
- 5,037 combined and intermediate schools, with 2,253,216 learners and 74,843 educators. (Combined schools are schools that offer any number of primary grades and secondary grades up to Grade 10, 11 or 12. Intermediate and middle schools are schools that offer grades 7 to 9.)
Of those 26,065 schools, 1,086 or 4.2 percent were independent (private) schools. They catered for 352,396 learners, or 2.8 percent of the total number of learners.
The national average learner-to-educator ratio in ordinary schools was 31.5:1, ranging from 28.9:1 in the Free State to 33.2:1 in Limpopo. Private schools generally have one teacher for every 20 scholars.
The national gross enrolment ratio for primary and secondary schools was 94 percent; this ratio is somewhat smaller when grade R is taken into consideration, because a lot of children do not attend the “reception grade”. Learner access to grade R is, however, increasing, and the Department of Education hopes to have grade R in all public primary schools by 2010.
Figures for 2007 reveal that the highest proportion of learners is in the foundation phase (30.4 percent). As one moves up to higher levels, the proportion of learners decreases. In 2007, the higher band (grades 10 to 12) comprised only 21.5 percent of learners in ordinary schools. Girls and boys were almost equally represented, with 49.9 percent and 50.1 percent respectively.
In 2008, a total of 589,912 grade 12 learners wrote the National Senior Certificate (“matric”), which is a prerequisite for being accepted into the institutions of higher education. The pass rate was 62,5 percent. Even more worrying than this low pass rate is the fact that about 40 percent of secondary school learners never even make it to matric.
Public schools in South Africa are funded by the state, but they are not free, except for the poorest segments of the population. For others, the government provides the minimum, and parents contribute in the form of school fees. Fees vary considerably, depending on factors such as class size, facilities and the quality of teaching offered. Parents who cannot afford to pay can apply for an exemption or reduction in fees. The 2005 Education Amendment Bill became law in January 2006, providing the legal foundation for introducing no-fee schools in 2007. By September 2008, 58 percent of public ordinary schools were declared no-fee schools, benefiting more than five million learners in 14,264 schools, mostly in poverty-stricken areas.
The learners in South African primary and secondary schools wear uniforms and are expected to adhere to a code of conduct regulating behaviour (courteous and restrained) and appearance (for example, boys must have short hair; girls with long hair must wear it pulled back and are not allowed to wear make-up). School prefects, selected from among the learners in the higher grades, are charged with upholding those rules.
Needless to say, the strict rules do not mean that South African schools are not beset by the problems that plague schools everywhere, like violence, drugs, teenage pregnancies, etc.
Only a handful of private schools have a more relaxed approach regarding the appearance of the learners.