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Last update on June 03, 2020

Learn more about schools in South Africa, including the South African education system, school fees, local and international schools, and how to register your child.

Expats moving to South Africa are faced with a range of schooling options, from state-funded schools to private and international ones. This guide to education in South Africa will help you enrol your child into the education system.

It’s important to do your research before making a decision about schooling for your child, as quality and cost of education vary dramatically between areas and schools. Below, you can find an outline of the South African education system – including primary, secondary, higher and university education – plus an introduction to the South African educational philosophy.

The standard of education in South Africa

Schools in South Africa

In the 2015 OECD rankings, which rates countries on the levels of maths and science at the age of 15, South Africa finished second from bottom, in 75th place. In the Pisa rankings, it was a similar story, with the country failing to reach the top 40 for either reading or maths.

South Africa has in the region of 30,000 schools, with 26,000 of them publicly funded.The majority of the 1,600 private schools in South Africa are located in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Most parents in South Africa need to pay for their child’s schooling, although many lower-income families have these fees paid by the government.

Reforms in education in South Africa

Education has recently come under the spotlight in South Africa, with primary and secondary schools failing to show significant improvements and exacerbating the country’s high unemployment rate. Indeed, in early 2016, South Africa’s minister of education Angie Motshekga commented that the country’s schools were in a state of ‘crisis’, with less than half of students who enrol in grade 1 in 2002 passing the school-leaving exam 11 years later.

The problem primarily lies in the state rather than private schools. The state school system is behind the times, still, carries some of the legacies of apartheid, and suffers from what Motshekga describes as ‘teachers who were not trained for the future’

Schools in South Africa: Local and international

Many international schools have good reputations and are popular with expats. International schools can be expensive, with costs at boarding schools rising to well over R100,000 per year, but some expats moving to the country have these costs covered by their place of employment. As with state schools, private and international schools in South Africa should be accredited by the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education Training (Umlazi).

Most international schools teach lessons in English, with the exception of German and French schools, which teach bilingually. Many schools teach traditional foreign languages as an option and, depending on their location, more niche languages such as Zulu and Afrikaans.

In the main, international schools usually follow an August to June school year, which is at odds with most local and private South African schools, where school years run from mid-January to early December.

With international schools boasting better grades and facilities and much smaller class sizes, they are very popular, so it pays to investigate your options and submit your child’s application as early as possible.

Popular international schools in South Africa include:

Compulsory education in South Africa

Education is compulsory from the age of seven (grade 1) to the age of 15 (grade 9), and in total, the education system runs all the way from grade 0 (otherwise known as reception) to grade 12.

From grades 10 to 12, education is optional and is sometimes taught in specialist technical, community or private colleges, where they take a school leaving exam known as the Matric. In 2015, only 70.7% of students passed the Matric test, with only half of students getting more than 50%.

Aside from international schools, there are three main types of schools in South Africa – public government-funded schools, governing body-funded schools and private schools.

South African education system

Public schools in South Africa rely on government funding and are operated at a local level in their province, which means the quality of education varies significantly between areas.  Educational standards tend to be higher in the bigger cities, but with a lack of government financing, some schools lack qualified teachers and specialist equipment.

Of the public schools, the best tend to be those that were known as “Model C” schools during the Apartheid years. These schools are partially funded by governing bodies and parents, resulting in higher educational standards and better facilities.

Finally, private schools in South Africa have a very good reputation, with smaller class sizes, more extracurricular activities and, in some cases, learning systems more closely based on those in the likes of the United States and Britain.

Fees at schools in South Africa

Sending your child to a good state school will cost anywhere from R8,000 to R20,000 per year. These fees are significantly cheaper than private schools, where fees are usually between R30,000 and R70,000, with additional costs for boarding. In the poorest areas of South Africa, parents are exempt from paying school fees. It’s also worth checking if school uniforms (which are compulsory) and school dinners are included in the fees.

How to register your child into the South African education system

To register your child at a South African school, you’ll first need to prepare a few things, including getting hold of an up-to-date immunisation card and your child’s birth certificate.

School fees in South Africa

You apply directly to schools in South Africa. Some schools will conduct interviews and you may need to pay a registration fee when you apply. Once you’ve had your application accepted, you’ll need to send the confirmation as part of your application for your child’s study visa, which should cover the full duration of their time at school.

Finally, you’ll need to register your child at the school in person, showing both your study visa and your child’s passport.

The structure of the South Africa education system

Kindergarten is known as ‘grade 0’ in South Africa, and primary schools are generally divided into junior preparatory schools (grades 0-3) and senior preparatory schools (grades 4-7) before children attend high school (otherwise known as college) from grades 8-12. Many senior preparatory schools act as feeder schools for high schools/colleges.

With the exception of some international schools, South African schools follow a January – November school year, with state schools adopting a four-term system and most private schools having three terms.

At state schools, holidays usually last for two to three weeks between each term and four or five weeks in December when the school year ends. At private schools, it works slightly differently, with holidays usually lasting a month between each term and around five weeks at the end of the academic year.

As previously discussed, in the final year of high school (grade 12), students sit the matric exam, with passes given for 50-59% (normal pass), 60-89% (merit), and 90% or above (distinction) for each subject studied. Once finishing high school, students receive the National Senior Certificate, with matriculation endorsements defining their specific qualifications.These endorsements are the minimum requirement to get into a South African university.

Higher education in South Africa

Nine South African universities feature in the top 700 of the QS World University Rankings for 2016.

As a starting point, international students need to find out whether their qualifications from their home country will be recognised at a South African university before applying directly to their establishment of choice. Degrees in South Africa are awarded in a standard style with undergraduate, masters and PhD qualifications, albeit without a uniform grading system (1st, 2:1 etc).

University education in South Africa

A shortage of scholarships and bursaries is one of the downsides of going to university in South Africa as an international student. While some universities have scholarships that are open to students from around the world, preference is usually given to native students.

With this in mind, the cost of studying can be relatively high, as universities set their own admission fees. The average cost for an international student at the University of Cape Town in 2016 was R75,000 (£4,000) for an undergraduate degree and R47,500 (£2,750) for a masters degree.

Languages used within schools in South Africa

Pupils are usually required to study at least two languages, and most schools offer lessons in either English or Afrikaans (or in some cases the local African language). To sit the Matric exam in Grade 12, students need to know both English and Afrikaans, but if your child has been in South Africa for less than five years, it’s possible to choose another language or subject instead.

Special needs schools in South Africa

There are over 400 public special needs schools in South Africa, with the standard of education depending on the severity of the disability and how well resourced the school is. In 2015, the charity Human Rights Watch released a report criticising the lack of schooling opportunities for children with disabilities in South Africa.

Education in South Africa: Homeschooling

Homeschooling in South Africa is relatively popular with expats. To be permitted to home-school your child, you’ll need to apply to the governing body in your area and agree to follow the curriculum, maintain records of their coursework and for them to attend the school to sit their exams. You can read more about homeschooling on the Department of Education website.

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