Secondary schools in South Africa
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The Secondary Education System in South Africa
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) oversees primary and secondary education schools in South Africa. It usually lasts for six years and is divided into two phases or bands.
Students in lab coats working on experiments in secondary school
The General Education and Training (GET) band covers lower secondary or senior stage. It starts in the final year of primary school (grade 7) until grade 9. This stage is generally compulsory for students aged 12 to 13 to 15 years.
Subsequently, the upper secondary stage or further education and training (FET) band includes the last three years of secondary school, grades 10 to 12 (16–18), which is not compulsory. Students may choose to complete this phase at an academic or technical/vocational school. However, to enter the upper secondary stage, students must officially pass ninth grade.
At the end of the twelfth grade, students must sit the National Senior Certificate (NSC) to graduate high school. Colloquially known as matriculation, students must obtain this qualification in order to gain admission to university. Notably, Grade 12 students also write exams around May or June, called record exams. Universities often use these results to give early acceptance to learners as they must apply before their final exams.
Explore the education system in South Africa
Children living in South Africa can enroll in public or private high schools. International schools fall under the independent category. However, these institutions charge much higher fees and often have stricter admissions procedures and longer waiting lists. Independent schools often follow different curricula to the National Curriculum Statements (NCS) and offer other qualifications.
State/public secondary schools in South Africa
Most of the country’s secondary students (95.2%) attended state high schools in 2018. In 2021, just under 4.7 million students out of almost 5 million were enrolled in public secondary education schools in South Africa.
State schools are not free, apart from a few no-fee schools in the country’s poorest areas. Instead, schools divide into five quintiles. Quintile 1 (Q1) schools receive the most state funding. They also charge the lowest school fees as they are considered in the lowest-income communities. In contrast, Quintile 5 (Q5) schools receive the lowest government subsidies as most parents can generally afford higher school fees.
Parents can expect to pay between R30,000–60,000 per year for public schools, depending on the child’s grade. However, parents who do not meet the income threshold can apply for full or partial fee exemptions. Parents must also consider the extra costs of buying school uniforms, stationary, and providing a packed lunch. Typically, schools will supply textbooks. There may be a small tuck shop to buy snacks, called a snoepie, but often no cafeteria or provided lunches.
There are no state-controlled private schools, but they can apply for state subsidies.
Teenage girl chatting with friends in class schools in South Africa
Unfortunately, the standard of education between public schools differs, often perpetuating the social inequality existing in other sectors of society. For instance, some evidence suggests that schools with higher fees and less state funding (e.g., Quintile 5 versus Quintile 1) often perform better academically in some learning areas.
The curriculum in state secondary schools in South Africa
The school year at public schools runs from January through December, across four terms. Students get two weeks off around Easter, three weeks in June/July, a week in September/October, and a five-week summer holiday in December/January.
During the Senior Phase, students attend 27.5 hours of class each week and study the following subjects:
Languages (two to three of the 11 official languages)
- Arts and Culture
In the Upper Secondary Phase or FET Band, students also attend 27.5 hours of class per week, but the subjects vary. At the beginning of Grade 10, students can choose to follow an academic or technical stream. Those who choose the former attend ordinary academic schools, while those on the latter track attend Vocational and Technical Education Training (VTEC) colleges. In total, students take seven subjects. Mandatory subjects include:
- Two official languages
- Life Orientation (LO)
The remaining three can be specific to their interests or career goals, including subjects in:
- Life sciences
- Vocational/career orientated
Most public secondary schools also offer extracurricular activities and sports, depending on their resources and facilities. Typically, these can include:
- Field hockey
Parents would need to buy any relevant sports clothing and equipment. For other activities.
Pros and Cons of State Schools in South Africa
Generally, the biggest advantage of state schools is that they are free. However, parents still have to pay a relatively high price for secondary education schools in South Africa. Of course, this is still more affordable than private schools.
Additionally, students will better integrate into South African culture by making local friends and learning at least some of the official languages.
However, you will also need to do your research, as you cannot be guaranteed a high-quality education at your local school. As such, some state schools may have large class sizes and limited resources, which may affect the standard of their tuition and facilities.
Applying to secondary state schools in South Africa
Students planning to attend a state high school submit their application in their final primary year (grade 7). Parents are generally advised to apply to at least three in-state high schools. Application deadlines vary by province, and each school has its own registration process.
There are no catchment areas or geographical restrictions. However, priority may be given to children who live close to the school or if they already have siblings.
To apply, a student must fill the school’s application form and submit the following documents:
Latest school reports
International children must also show their study visa and residency permit.
Private Secondary Schools in South Africa
In 2021, out of 24,900 schools, 2,154 were independent. Which includes primary and secondary education. The data also shows that only 4.7% of all secondary students attended independent schools.
Generally, private schools in South Africa combine primary and secondary education on a single site, allowing for a smooth transition from primary to high school.
Due to the high tuition fees of these schools, most South Africans cannot afford private education for their children. As such, fees can range between R100,000–200,000 per year. However, there is a drive to make private education accessible by setting up more affordable schools. This new brand of inclusive private institutions includes school groups, such as:
These schools focus on a spiritual — or religious — education while teaching an academic syllabus. For example, students will receive pastoral care from a Christian, Jewish, or Islam faith perspective alongside traditional subjects like maths and science.
Although there are not too many religious secondary schools in South Africa, some of the more popular ones include the King David Schools (Jewish), Sacred Heart College (Catholic), and Johannesburg Muslim School (Islam). One of the most internationally well-known Christian schools in South Africa is the musical Drakensberg Boys Choir School.
Although Montessori schools are popular for primary education, only some schools in South Africa, including the Village Montessori School, offer secondary education. During high school, these institutions focus on analytical thinking and independence and encourage students to take an interest in current affairs and their community. Students tend to work at their own pace and shape their subject choices around their interests and abilities.
Another popular education approach includes Steiner-Waldorf schools. This holistic teaching method follows the child’s unique developmental stages and nurtures critical thinking, independent working, creativity, and lifelong curiosity. Five schools in South Africa offer secondary education, including:
- Constantia Waldorf School (Constantia, Cape Town)
- Roseway Waldorf School (Durban)
- Michael Mount Waldorf School (Bryanston, Johannesburg)
- Michael Oak Waldorf School (Kenilworth, Cape Town)
- Stellenbosch Waldorf School (Stellenbosch, Cape Town)
International Schools in South Africa
South Africa has 53 international schools, which are popular with the immigrant community. They offer a high standard of education, a multicultural environment and a strong extracurricular program. However, this comes at a price. For example, the American International School of Cape Town (AISCT) charges R206,032 per year for secondary education.
A student in an American secondary school
Many parents choose international schools because they offer the same style of education as their home countries and global qualifications. For example, British schools offer A-levels, while American schools typically offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes in preparation for university. Your child can earn a globally recognized International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma at some schools.
American International Schools
Some international schools in the country follow the education system of the United States of America (USA). Classes are usually in English. In their final years, students can take AP classes and sit for the SAT exam to prepare for American universities. American International School of Cape Town (AISCT) and American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ) are popular choices.
British International Schools
International schools using the Cambridge curriculum are popular with students wishing to follow the British education system or attend universities in the United Kingdom (UK). Students take all the expected academic subjects and some optional subjects in these schools. Typically, they will sit General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations at 16 and A-level examinations in their final year (year 13).
French international schools
These schools follow the French education system, which is delivered in a bilingual setup that includes French and English. Second – Grade 10 – Students study several subjects such as literature or economics before focusing on a specialty in their last two years. He will graduate with a French bachelor’s degree. Lycée Jules Verne is a popular French international school in South Africa.
Graduated in South Africa
To graduate from state secondary education schools in South Africa and obtain the National Senior Certificate (NSC)—or matriculation—students must pass the National Senior Certificate examinations. Those in technical colleges will instead obtain a national certificate: Vocational.
Students are assessed in seven subjects. Four are compulsory, and three are optional. Compulsory subjects include the two official national languages, mathematics and LO.
If learners wish to study further at a schools in South Africa university, they must have a Level 4 result (50-59%) in at least four subjects plus an endorsement of matriculation or a graduate pass for their matriculation.
In contrast, at many independent schools, students can graduate with an International Examinations Board (IEB) qualification. It claims to be a more rigorous academic programme, equivalent to A-levels, which better prepares students for international life and study.
Of course, many international schools follow their country’s curriculum. Therefore, students will graduate with a qualification, such as a British A-Level, a French Baccalaureate or an American High School Diploma. Indeed, some independent schools even offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.
International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma in South Africa
Currently, only three IB World Schools offer secondary education schools in South Africa. So, to take the two-year program and graduate with an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, students will go to the American International School of Johannesburg, Hout Bay International School or Redhill School. Many universities recognize the IB Diploma globally, making it a popular choice of secondary education qualification for international families.