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The School System

Information on the system of schooling in South Africa, from pre-primary to higher education...

A child may begin schooling with grade 0 (also called reception, or grade-R) from the age of four. Grades 1 to 9 are compulsory and classified as General Education and Training (GET).

Grades 11 and 12, Further Education and Training (FET), are non-compulsory; qualification at this level with a matriculation certificate is required to enter tertiary education.

Some schools offer a post-matric/sixth-form level which allows students to sit for A-level exams.

The three-tier system of education is as follows:

  1. Primary school: Grade 0/1 to grade 6/7
  2. Secondary school: Grade 8 to 9 (compulsory); grade 10 to 12 (non-compulsory)
  3. Tertiary education: Universities, technical colleges

This system is also referred to in phases:

  • Foundation phase: Reception to grade 3
  • Intermediate phase: Grades 4 to 6
  • Senior phase: Grades 7 to 9
  • Further Education and Training (FET): Grades 10 to 12 (matriculation certificate)
  • Higher Education (HE)


Preschools are for children from age four up to seven years of age. They are normally split into two grades:

  1. Grade R (year 0 or reception year), for children of four years of age who will turn five before June 30th
  2. Grade 1 for children of five years of age who will turn six before June 30th

Compulsory education begins at grade 1.  Parents are permitted to enrol their children in grade R or grade 1 a year later than usual if they feel that they are not ready for school.  Some schools make this compulsory, insisting that children begin year one at the age of seven.

Public preschools are provided by some of the provincial departments of education but funding is limited. Most require top up fees. There are also many independent preschools or crèches. Children's learning focuses on literacy, numeracy and life skills.

The Centre for Early Childhood Development runs the Early Childhood Development Programme (ECD), mainly implemented in preschools, aimed at developing young children.

Primary school

Children attend primary school from their reception year to grade 6. The reception year is optional, and children begin formal schooling in grade one. Junior primary school usually lasts three years where children are taught basic subjects such as reading and writing, mathematics, and usually a second language is introduced.

During senior primary school (age 10 to 12 years) in addition to maths and language skills, children learn history, geography, life skills and science as well as developing written and speaking skills in their second language.

  • For more information on the school curriculum: Click here


Annual National Assessments (ANAs) are standardised across the country and take place in literacy and numeracy in the foundation stage (grades 1 to 3) and in numeracy and languages in the intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6).

Secondary school

Secondary education is also divided into junior and senior phases. Students may study two or three languages in secondary school. Senior secondary school offers the chance for students to broaden and deepen their knowledge in various academic subjects to help them with further study or prepare them for their choice of career.

Students study a minimum of four subjects from the following areas:

  • General studies
  • Commercial studies
  • Natural sciences
  • Technical studies
  • The arts
  • Agriculture
  • Domestic science

Grades 10 to 12 (optional years) can also include career orientated education and training in other Further Education and Training institutions such technical and community colleges.

  • For more information about the school curriculum: Click here

Exams and certificates

Education is compulsory up to the end of grade 9. Certificates are awarded on completion of grade 10 and 11, but the National Senior Certificate or NSC (the equivalent of a High School Diploma) is awarded on completion of grade 12. The NSC acts as a high school leaving certificate and is also referred to as the matriculation or matric certificate.

To gain the NSC students must take at least six subjects but there is an option to include three others which are not compulsory. Compulsory subjects include:

  • Two languages (home language plus another)
  • Mathematics
  • Life Orientation
  • For more information on the NSC and exams: Click here
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