SA learners too old for school

A recent survey suggests that 10% of learners across all grades are three or more years outside the age-grade norm

Every year the country reliably goes through the ritual of breast-beating about the national matric pass rate, which is lamentable. And some education commentators point out that, if we take into account the number of learners who exit the school system before reaching matric, the picture of school completion is even more worrying.

One could be forgiven for thinking that large numbers of children roam the streets and communities with nothing to do, having dropped out of the schooling system. But this is far from the case.

A national household survey on education undertaken by Social Surveys Africa and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) suggests only 4% of children aged seven to 18 are not in school—a finding that is echoed by other household surveys.
The Social Surveys-Cals study was based on a nationally representative survey of more than 4 400 households conducted in 2007.

But concerns about the dropout from the senior grades of high school are warranted: only 37% of youths aged 19 to 25 had completed a matric or equivalent in 2007. At first glance this raises a puzzle: 96% of our children are in school, but our matric completion rates are abysmal. What is happening?

One of the reasons we have such high attendance rates for the ages seven to 18 is that learners take a long time to get through the schooling system. Just because you are in school at the age of 18 does not mean you are in grade 12.

The Department of Basic Education’s age-grade norms state that a child should be seven in grade 1, eight in grade 2 and so on. So at the age of 18, ideally Grade 12 learners will be 18 years old: yet half of them are not.

In the households sampled by the survey every second grade 12 learner was older than 18. Twenty-two percent of grade 12 learners were older than 20. Ten percent of learners across all grades were three or more years outside the age-grade norm.

This suggests that the “average” grade nine educator will teach children from age 14 to those in their early 20s. This is an enormous task even for skilled educators, who need to cater for children with large differences in pedagogic and social needs.

It also suggests that, while a number of learners in the schooling system are missing a year or more of schooling and returning, the biggest reason for the large number of over-age learners in our system is grade repetition.

By grade nine 40% of learners had repeated a grade in 2007, the survey found. By grade 12 50% had repeated a grade. Nine percent of grade 12 learners had repeated three times or more.

Breaking down these figures by race, the survey found that black children were six times more likely to repeat than white children. It is not news that inequalities of outcomes persist for (primarily poor) black children, only 11% of whom attend private schools or the wealthiest top fifth of schools (what the education department calls “quintile 5” schools—mainly former Model C schools). More than 80% of white children attend private or quintile 5 schools.

The survey suggests that children in poorly performing schools—overwhelmingly working-class and poor black South Africans—“persevere” in their education for years, sometimes up to the age of 25. Yet this culture of school attendance and years of investment by the state, households and the learners themselves do not translate into matric completion.

We gradually lose learners who drop out in senior high school years (grades 10 to 12) but, because some of them have taken a long time to get there, this dropout is masked by high attendance rates for seven to 18-year-olds.

High levels of grade repetition will remain as long as the quality of education provided to most South Africans remains poor. In the medium term, older children in each grade are here to stay. We need to think creatively about the role that older youth in our education system can play: Is there greater space for creating roles of leadership and responsibility for these learners, where being older than one’s peers is turned from a burden into an asset?

Multigrade classrooms in South Africa may be affecting a small percentage of schools, but multi-age classrooms are common. And many teachers might struggle to cope with this reality. The curriculum for each grade is aimed at a particular pedagogic developmental stage—premised on children being of a certain age. How can the large age spread found in the Social Surveys-Cals survey and the different pedagogical needs involved be incorporated in the curriculum and daily classroom management?

But some bigger policy questions are also raised by statistics on school efficiency and on completion rates for grades 10 to 12, where the consequences of a poor grounding in learning in the earlier school years really begins to show.

Year after year we lament the low matric pass rate and worry about dropouts from grades 10 to 12. But the Social Surveys-Cals survey raises several questions:

  • What is our goal for education and training in the period after compulsory schooling, which ends with grade nine?

  • Should attainment of a good basic education (grade nine, with some form of exit examination) become a more important indicator of school completion than matric?

  • Do we want to extend compulsory school attendance from age 15 to age 18?

  • Is it appropriate to be pouring massive resources into trying to save our failing further education and training colleges?

The newly established Human Resource Development Council will have to play an important role in clearly articulating a vision and goal for post-compulsory school education in South Africa. And the private sector and civil society must share in this task.

Sarah Meny-Gibert was primary researcher on the Social Surveys-Cals Access to Education Project. For more information, see

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