In South Africa not all schools are created equal

By Isaac Riddle

The playground at Skeen Primary School is not indicative of a school with a large student body. The lone slide is old and rusted, while the teeter-tot has long fallen off its central hinge and the only swing set on the playground consists of two tied up swings. Over 1,200 students attend Skeen, a primary school in the Johannesburg suburb of Alexandra.

A lack of resources is not just visible on the playground; inside Skeen’s classrooms students attempt to learn in crowded classrooms with multiple languages being spoken at one time. Some students get to sit at desks while other students have to sit on the floor.

“We lack enough chairs and desks for the students we currently have,” said Mashishi Phillemon, the current school principal at Skeen. “Many students are learning in crowded classrooms and having to sit on the floor.”

The playground at Skeen Primary School consists of an old slide, a broken teeter totter and a unusable swing set. Photo by Isaac Riddle

The playground at Skeen Primary School consists of an old slide, a broken teeter totter and a unusable swing set. Photo by Isaac Riddle

The school not only struggles to provide such basic resources as desks and chairs for new students, but even textbooks and other essential instructional materials.   According to Phillemon, students in grade 7 classes at Skeen never received essential textbooks for a newly mandated curriculum.

The situation at Skeen is common throughout South Africa and its largest city, Johannesburg. The country struggles to provide basic resources to students that are considered essential to a quality education.

The method for funding schools in South Africa varies from the model in the United States in which school districts receive money from the city usually through property taxes and from the state education departments.

In South Africa schools receive money from the federal government and through schools fees, which are only applied to more affluent schools. Because affluent schools have no limit to the amount in fees that they can charge, the method of funding schools has led to large disparities in the quality of education public school students receive.

The majority of the South African public school students live in poverty. Eighty-nine percent of South Africa’s public school students attend a school designated as lower income. South Africa categorizes schools based on a quintile system.   Schools in quintiles one through three are considered high poverty areas and receive all their funding through the government. Schools in quintiles four and five are generally more affluent schools that are allowed to charge tuition and only receive a few hundred dollars per student from the government.

The subsidized education in quintile four and five schools allows the school to hire extra teachers and provide extra resources.

“Schools are good in quintile five schools because we can provide extra teachers,” said Cheryl Donald the principal at Emmarentia Primary School, an affluent quintile five school in the middle-class neighborhood of Emmarentia in Johannesburg.

Donald has worked in education for 39 years with 19 of those years occurring during Apartheid, a period in South Africa’s history in which blacks and whites were segregated in all aspects of daily life.   Under Apartheid, black students were denied quality education from the white controlled government.   With only twenty years since the end of Apartheid, South Africa is still recovering from the repercussions from decades of segregated education.

“The majority of students are in schools that are not adequately resourced,” said Jonathan Snyman, the head education researcher at South African Institute of Race Relations. “Many schools lack libraries or computers.”

The educational standard in South Africa is a student to teacher ratio of 40 to one. The student to teacher ratio at Emmarentia Primary School is 25 to one.

Not only does Emmarentia have smaller classes than the national average, but the school also has a equipment computer lab, a school gym, a recently built playground, a tennis court, swimming pool and two large soccer fields.

Emmarentia Primary School provides its students access to a tennis court, a swimming pool, large playground and two soccer fields.  By Isaac Riddle

Emmarentia Primary School provides its students access to a tennis court, a swimming pool, large playground and two soccer fields. By Isaac Riddle

Yet even in a quintile five school, funding can still be limited. In all level schools, principals are expected to work as the schools financial adviser. Principals without any finance experience are responsible for drafting a school budget and managing all finances at their school.

Many principals including Donald will take on a few classes as well to keep student to teacher ratios down. Donald teaches grade 7 mathematics 10 hours a week. Although teaching classes only adds to her workload, Donald does see a positive in being back in the classroom.

“You get the feeling of what your teachers are going through,” said Donald.

Most students in South Africa aren’t fortunate enough to attend schools like Emmarentia.   Students from quintile one schools perform significantly lower on proficiency tests than those from quintile five schools. Proficiency rates in reading and mathematics are nearly half that of schools in the top quintile.

Parents living or working within Emmarentia’s catchment area pay 15,000 Rand, roughly $1,500 U.S. dollars, per school year.   In a country in which the average yearly income is just under $12,000 U.S. dollars, that type of school fee is impossible to afford for most of South Africa’s population.

The mild climate allows students at Emmarentia Primary School to eat lunch outside most days.  Photo by Isaac Riddle

The mild climate allows students at Emmarentia Primary School to eat lunch outside most days. Photo by Isaac Riddle

Students from the lower level schools are also more likely to drop out from high school or repeat a grade. In South Africa only 50 percent of students will graduate from high school on time.   According to data gathered by the South African Institute of Race Relations, nearly a quarter of grade 10 students will repeat the school year.

According to Snyman, another 50 percent of students will dropout between the 10th and 12th grades.   Of those students that do make it to the 12th grade, which in South Africa is called the matriculation year, nearly 70 percent will not pass the National Senior Certificate test required at the end of high school to measure student proficiency in core subjects.

The lack of a large educated workforce has led to what Carol O’brien the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa calls a “skills deficit.”

“We are experiencing a jobless economy due to a lack of skills from the public,” said Snyman.

South Africa has an unemployment rate of 25 percent. According to Synman, over 80 percent of the unemployed have a high school diploma or less. Only six percent of the unemployed have completed any higher education.

The unemployment rate also varies by race. Because black South Africans are more likely to attend poor performing schools, they make up a disproportionate amount of the unemployed.   According to the Institute of Race Relations, 42 percent of blacks are unemployed compared to 7 percent of white South Africans.

Phillemon has served as principal at Skeen Primary School for the past five years. Skeen is located in the township of Alexandra, one of the poorest regions of Johannesburg. As a quintile two school, Skeen receives all of its funding from the government.

Overcrowding is a problem at Skeen. The student to teacher ratio is 50 to one; well over the national average of 40 to one.   Alexandra is a popular destination for immigrants from rural areas or nearby African countries looking for work in Johannesburg. The continual arrival of immigrants results in a steady stream of new students arriving throughout the school year.

“We can’t declare ourselves full,” said Phillemon.

Schools in the first three quintiles are not allowed to turn away students.   According to Phillemon, new students arrive each week adding to already over-crowded classrooms.

“Students need space for learning, students can’t get individual attention,” said Phillemon.

The school is not able to provide the need instructional support to students with learning disabilities or who require extra help.

Because of Skeen’s large immigrant population, language is another barrier to learning.   South Africa has eleven official languages and as a result students at Skeen speak multiple languages.   Sepedi, the language of the Isizulu tribe, is the most common native language of Skeen’s students. But for many students at Skeen, Sepedi is a second or third language, instead speaking Tsonga or Venda at home.

Most students at Skeen Primary School wear the same uniform everyday.  Photo by Isaac Riddle

Most students at Skeen Primary School wear the same uniform everyday. Photo by Isaac Riddle


Typically students are taught in their native language until the third grade.   After a student reaches the third grade instruction switches from a student’s native language to English, usually without any transition.

At Skeen most of the teachers speak Sepedi and English, so instruction for the early grades is in Sepedi. Because many students at Skeen aren’t fluent in Sepedi, they struggle learning in the less familiar language.

Schools are also affected by dysfunction and constant changes in leadership at the federal level. For example, there have been five different federally mandated curriculums since schools were integrated in 1994.

Because conditions are so poor in schools in the first three quintiles, teacher retention rates are much lower than four and five quintile schools.

“The problem is that there have been too many systems, as soon as educators get accustomed to a system it changes,” said Donald.

The constant curriculum changes have led to many early retirements and resignations, even in the top quintile schools resulting in the constant hiring of teachers new to the field.

“New teachers don’t have the same amount of experience as older teachers,” said Donald. “The problem with new teachers is that they have not learned the methodology, they have to be taught how to teach using methods that work.”

According to both Donald and Phillemon, they are so busy with administrative work that there is little time left for new teacher training. Even if extra time was available, both principals argued that teachers lack free time outside of their class instruction due to an increase in paperwork.

“There is so much paperwork that it is taking away from the teaching,” said Donald.

South Africa is considered an emerging economy with more and more people moving into the middle class.   With the growing middle class, more parents are starting to look for alternatives to the public school system.

“More and more private schools are tying to attract lower and middle income students,” said Snyman.

The Institute of Race Relations estimates close to 500,000 students attend private schools. While that only accounts for about five percent of all students in South Africa, the Institute of Race Relations expects that number increase.

“The education system is going the route of privatization,” said Snyman

Snyman views the growing popularity of private schools as necessary to the health of public education.

“More students in private schools helps get rid of the excess burden on the public school system,” said Snyman.

While private schools may be an alternative for some parents, South Africa struggles to provide for the students whose only realistic option is their neighborhood public school.