A parent's complete guide to schooling


At what age must my child enter school? What if I can't afford the school fees? Are teachers allowed to smack my child? What if my child has special educational needs? Can I educate my child at home? We give you the answers, and more, to frequent questions about South Africa's schooling system.

What are the South African government's responsibilities regarding education?

Section 29 (1) of South Africa's Constitution reads: "Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible." According to the South African Schools Act of 1996, schooling is compulsory for all South Africans from the age of seven (grade 1) to the age of 15, or the completion of grade 9.

At what age may my child start school?

The age of a child entering grade 1 is age five turning six by 30 June in the year of admission. For grade 0 (otherwise known as grade R – the reception year), the age is four turning five by 30 June in the year of admission.

If parents feel their children are not yet ready for school, they are allowed to admit them at an older age – five turning six for grade 0, and six turning seven for grade 1. Many schools conduct school-readiness tests to determine if a later admission would be in the child's best interests.

What are the grades in SA schools?

Schooling runs from grade 0 (the reception year also known as grade R) through to grade 12 (known as matric). Grades 1 to 9 are compulsory, and classified as General Education and Training. Grades 10 to 12 are considered to be Further Education and Training.

Grade 12 is the year of matriculation, which is required (with certain minimum conditions) for tertiary education. Some private schools also offer a post-matric "sixth form" year which allows students to sit for A-level examinations.

What documents do I have to supply to admit my child to a school?

For public schools, the only documents parents are required to supply when applying to admit their child to school are:

  • the child's birth certificate
  • the child's immunisation card
  • a transfer card or last school report, if the child has already been to another school

A child may be registered provisionally if these documents are not immediately available, and the parents must be given a reasonable time to submit them.

If you are not a South African citizen, you should also include a copy of your study permit or your temporary or permanent residence permit. If you do not yet have a permit, you will need to submit evidence that you have applied for permission to stay in South Africa.

Can my child attend any public school?

A parent may register his or her child at any public school, if there are vacancies.

Most schools have established so-called feeder zones, the area the school favours when admitting students. The order of preference for admission to schools generally is:

  • Children whose parents live in the school's feeder zone – this includes parents who live at their place of work, such as domestic workers.
  • Children whose parents work in the feeder zone.
  • The rest are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, and may be placed on a waiting list.

However, the provincial department of education is obliged to find a place in school for every learner. The feeder zone system does not apply to private or independent schools, which have their own admission requirements.

What can I expect to pay?

Many of our state-aided schools – which receive a state subsidy as well as fees from parents – are on a par with private schools at a fraction of the price. A good state- aided school, offering smallish class sizes (about 25-odd), may cost R8 000 to R20 000 per year compared with a private school, costing about R30 000 to R70 000 per year – excluding boarding, which could cost an extra R50 000 a year.

State funding is organised on a quintile system, in which schools are divided into five categories according to the poverty levels in the areas they serve. Poorer schools are given larger state subsidies, and so have lower school fees, while wealthier schools are given smaller subsidies, and so have higher fees.

In the poorest areas of all, parents are completely exempt from paying school fees. These “no-fee” schools receive all their required funding from the government, and made up 55% of all schools – or 43% of all learners – in 2011.

Can a school take legal action against me if I don't pay my child's school fees?

Yes. In terms of the Schools Act, parents have a legal obligation to pay public school fees, as determined by the school governing body.

But this action can only be taken if the fee-exemption criteria have been applied, and the parent still found to be liable for – in other words, can afford to pay – the fees. This obviously excludes no-fee schools, and orphans are exempt from school fees.

But what if I can't afford to pay school fees?

At all public schools, parents may apply for a reduction in or even exemption from school fees. If both parents' annual earnings are less than 10 times the yearly school fees (before tax), the child qualifies for a full fee exemption. Partial exemptions can also be made for parents with financial problems. This generally requires some kind of proof of income.

Schools are encouraged to form a school fees committee, which should assist parents in applying for exemption. Forms for fee exemption should be available at the school office; otherwise contact your provincial department of education.

Can a school refuse to admit my child if I haven't paid school fees?

No. In terms of the Schools Act, no student may be refused admission to a public school on the grounds that his or her parent or caregiver is unable to pay, or has not paid, school fees.

It is also illegal for a school to refuse to allow a child to take part in the school's sporting, cultural or social activities – such as the matric dance – on the grounds that fees have not been paid, or to retain the child's report.

Can a school refuse to admit my child for any other reason?

No – unless the child has already been expelled from that particular school. All schools must admit students without discrimination of any kind. Schools may not administer tests, or use pre-school experience or language as reasons not to enrol a child. Admission may not be refused because parents or guardians:

  • are unable to pay, or haven't paid, school fees
  • have not provided documents – such as household water and electricity
  • accounts – that prove the parent's ability to pay school fees
  • do not subscribe to the school's mission statement
  • have refused to sign an indemnity contract
  • are unable to afford all or part of the school uniform

What if I'm still having trouble getting my child into a school?

Call the Department of Basic Education's toll-free hotline on 0800 202 933, contact your provincial education department, or contact the Education Rights Project.

Are teachers allowed to hit or cane my child?

No. The Schools Act outlaws corporal punishment. Any teacher administering physical punishment faces prosecution for assault, and may be fined or even jailed.

Corporal or physical punishment can take many forms, including hitting with a hand or an object such as a cane, belt, whip, shoe or ruler, slapping, kicking, shaking, burning, pinching or pulling hair, forcing someone to stand in an uncomfortable and undignified position, denying or restricting someone's use of the toilet, denying meals, drink, heat and shelter as a form of punishment, or forcing someone to do excessive exercise.

How large will my child's class be?

There is usually some correlation between class size and fees. The average teacher- to-pupil ratio in South African schools is 1:30. At the state-aided schools where parents pay for extra teachers by way of school fees, and at the more expensive private schools, the maximum number of pupils is usually about 30. At poorer schools this is often higher, with as many as 40 to 50 children in a classroom.

Is learning at schools computer-based?

This depends on a particular school's resources. Most private and state-aided schools have well-stocked computer or media centres, and increasing numbers have computers in every classroom. There are several government and private initiatives to get the rest – most schools in townships and rural areas – online within the next few years.

Will my child have access to sporting and other facilities?

While schools in poor areas are sorely under-resourced when it comes to sports fields and other facilities, most schools in the suburbs have good to excellent sporting facilities. Space is seldom a constraint in South Africa, and a growing number of schools boast state-of-the-art astroturf hockey fields, indoor gym centres, squash courts and swimming pools.

The emphasis on sport depends largely on the school, but – given that sport is a national preoccupation – most schools devote substantial amounts of time to it. In fact, under the new curriculum introduced in 2012, sport is included in the school day, aiming to ensure all children have the opportunity to participate.

Other facilities such as music rooms, theatres and art centres depend largely on the particular bent of the school and on its financial resources. Most state-aided schools offer a range of curricular and extra-mural choices in the arts.

Will tuition be in English?

It is compulsory to do a Home Language, which is the language of learning and teaching, and an Additional Language from Grade 1. These are set by the school governing body (see below), and are not necessarily the language spoken at home by the majority of learners. While research shows that learners who are taught in their mother tongue perform better, most schools choose to teach in English because of parent perception that it will benefit their children. From grade 4 onwards, learners are encouraged to switch to English.

My daughter has special learning needs. Do regular schools have remedial programmes, or must she go to a special school?

It depends on the severity of the problem and on how well-resourced the school is. In 2010, there were 104 633 children in 423 public special needs schools. There are also private schools for children with severe remedial problems or disabilities.

South Africa has a policy of inclusive education, which includes various models to integrate special-needs children into ordinary schools. However, a lack of resources and infrastructure have meant that this policy has been slow to implement and children who have been mainstreamed don't always get the special education they need.

Some of the better-off schools, both state-aided and private, offer remedial education in one form or another. They employ remedial teachers and run small remedial classes alongside regular classes.

Do parents have a say in the running of their children's school?

Definitely. National policy on state schools requires that the school governing body (SGB) – made up of management, teachers, learners (at high school) and parents (51%) – plays a large part in how the school is run, within a national framework.

Dynamic SGBs capable of raising funds and offering diverse skills to their schools have managed to turn them into thriving centres of excellence. On the downside, where parents are uneducated and poor, the SGBs are hamstrung from the start. Also, many children school miles from home, making it difficult for parents to get involved. At private schools, parental involvement depends largely on the nature of the school.

Are school uniforms compulsory?

Yes, certainly in all state schools and most private schools.

Are children allowed to wear religious dress to school?

In terms of the Constitution, learners may not be prohibited from wearing particular attire – such as yarmulkes and headscarves – to school. Schools are encouraged to have uniform policies that accommodate learners' religious beliefs.

How long are the school holidays?

State schools follow the four-term system, while most private schools have three longer terms. At state schools students holiday for two to three weeks between each term (except after the third term, when the break is usually 10 days) and for about five weeks in December and January, at the end of the school year.

At private schools, the holidays are usually about a month between each of the three school terms, with a longer holiday, also usually about five weeks, at the end of the year.

Can I home school in South Africa?

There's a growing worldwide trend towards home schooling and South Africa is no exception, with thousands of families opting to home school their children, for a variety of reasons. Some parents are keen to give their children religious or individualised tuition which they won't receive at school; others want to avoid the institutional nature of school life.

For those who wish to send their children to private schools but cannot afford to, home schooling is a cheaper alternative. Several home schooling associations are on hand to help those who choose to go this route.

Although home schooling is legal in South Africa, it is not actively encouraged by the government: permission must first be sought from provincial authorities, and various requirements must be met, such as the provision of a weekly timetable and a learning programme.

Useful documents

Follow these links to download the following documents:

What School System is Right for Your Child
How to Find a Pre-School