Education in South Africa

According to many experts, South Africa has one of the world’s most unequal school systems. There is hardly any country where the gap in testing results between the top 15 percent of a nation’s schools and the remaining part is as wide as in South Africa. When 200 black students start their education, only one of them will do well enough to be able to build a career in engineering, while ten white students will have that same result. Education in South Africa is set up like this:

Primary Education

Though South Africa’s government is trying hard to create equal opportunities for all citizens, education is continually under pressure. The country’s educational system is divided into three tracks: general education & training, further education & training, and higher education & training. The system has twelve grades in total and is compulsory through grade nine. Students will spend the first 6 years of their education in primary school and during this period, they will be trained in numeracy and literacy.

Middle Education

After primary school, three years of education take place in middle school. Most courses will still be academic but some vocational training will be included as well. After completing middle school, the students will receive a Certificate of basic education.

Secondary Education

South Africa’s secondary education takes place at previously predominantly white schools, both private and public schools. The educational standards are pretty high overall, but unfortunately, tuition fees and registration costs are debarring the poorest South Africans from getting a decent secondary education.

Vocational Education

In South Africa, vocational training and education is organized mostly by sector through predominantly commercial colleges that partly function through government grants and subsidies. There are also numerous independent institutions that provide adult education and some maintain pretty high standards.

Tertiary Education

Tertiary or post-secondary education is offered by a large number of public and private institutions that all fall under the control of South Africa’s higher education ministry. Polytechnics experts are training technicians in a wide array of disciplines while universities are award the traditional degrees bachelors, masters, and doctorates. There still is a huge divide in educational standards between what previously were labeled “white” and “independent homeland” educational institutions, a situation that is continuing to pervade the South African society.

Why is South Africa bottom of the class?

How are we going to help the poorest children?

Well, South Africa still fails to answer that question. In a 2015 OECD educational systems ranking, South Africa ranked 75th out of 76 countries that were checked. A 2016 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) quadrennial test where almost 600,000 students of 57 countries participated, South Africa scored near the bottom of practically all rankings, though the country’s scores had slightly improved over the last five years. South Africa’s students were even behind students from Africa’s poorer regions. It is shocking to see that more than 25% of South Africa’s students who went to school for at least 6 years are not capable of reading, compared to 18% in Zimbabwe and 5% in Tanzania. After 6 years of education, some 50% still cannot work out that 20 divided by four is five.

Of course, the roots of most of these problems can be found in apartheid. The 1953 Bantu Education Act ensured that whites South Africans would receive a better and more education than their black counterparts. Black students received only one-fifth of the education funds that were available to white students. Black students received practically no science or math education and the governments made sure that most independent (mostly church-run) schools that were offering a good education to blacks in their communities, were shut down.

In 1994, when Nelson Mandela rose to lead the nation, access to decent education became available to all South Africans. But the school system that was segregated by race was now divided by wealth. So schools in the nation’s poorest regions received more funding by the state, while schools in more wealthy areas charged fees. Theoretically, these schools need to admit students, even when the parents are not capable of furnishing the schools’ fees, but in reality, these schools are true “fortresses of privilege”. At the same time, we can still find some 500 mud and clay built schools, most of which are located in the Eastern Cape region. In the nation’s Western Cape region, on the other hand, there are some of the largest and most beautiful campuses to be found in our southern hemisphere with excellent sporting facilities.

But still, money or lack of funding is not the most important reason for South Africa’s education malaise. In South Africa spends more than 6% of its GDP on education, whereas in Europe, that number is below 5%. The key factors for the bad situation are the deplorable quality of most teachers and a total lack of accountability. And largely responsible for these failures is the country’s teachers’ union (SADTU – South African Democratic Teachers Union), an organization closely related to South Africa’s ruling party ANC (African National Congress).




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