Author/s: Katharine HallDate: July 2023
This indicator measures the number and percentage of children who have passed grades 3 and 9 by the appropriate age. Grade 3 progression is based on children aged 10-11 years; Grade 9 progression is based on children aged 16-17 years. The age limit is generous. If a child started school in the year that they turned 7 and progressed one grade every year, they would be expected to complete Grade 3 in the year that they turn 9, and Grade 9 in the year that they turn 15.
School attendance rates are very high during the compulsory schooling phase (grade 1 – 9). However, attendance tells us little about the quality of education that children receive, or their progress through the education system.
High rates of grade repetition have been recorded in numerous studies. For example, a study of children’s progress at school found that only about 44% of young adults (aged 21 – 29) had matriculated, and of these less than half had matriculated “on time”.5 This was based on 2008 data from the National Income Dynamics Study. In 2016, only 51% of young people aged 20 – 24 had completed a matric or matric equivalent.6 In South Africa, the labour market returns to education only start kicking in on successful completion of matric or matric equivalent. However it is important to monitor progress and grade repetition in the earlier grades as slow progress at school is a strong determinant of school drop-out.7
Assuming that children are enrolled in primary school at the prescribed age (by the year in which they turn seven) and assuming that they do not repeat a grade or drop out of school, they would be expected to have completed the foundation phase (grade 3) by the year that they turn nine, and the general education phase (grade 9) by the year they turn 15. This indicator allows a little more leeway: it measures the number and proportion of children aged 10 and 11 years who have completed a minimum of grade 3, and the proportion of those aged 16 and 17 years who have completed a minimum of grade 9. In other words, it allows for the older cohort in each group to have repeated one grade, or more if they started school in the year before they turned seven.
In 2018, 88% of all children aged 10 and 11 were reported to have completed grade 3. This was up from 78% in 2002. An improvement in progress through the foundation phase was evident across most of the provinces, with significant advances in the Eastern Cape (from 64% in 2002 to 85% in 2018), North West (from 80% to 92%), Mpumalanga (75% to 89%), Limpopo (80% to 92%) and KwaZulu-Natal (75% to 86%). These improvements have narrowed the gap between provinces.
As would be expected, the rate of progression through the entire general education and training band (grades 1 – 9) is lower, as there is more time for children to have repeated or dropped out by grade 9. Seventy percent of children aged 16 – 17 years had completed grade 9 in 2018. This represents an overall improvement of 20 percentage points over the 16-year period, from 50% in 2002. Provincial variation is slightly more pronounced than for progress through the foundation phase: Gauteng had the highest rate of grade 9 progression (82%), followed by the Western Cape (76%). Progress was poorest in the North West and Free State, where just over half (54% and 56% respectively) of children had completed grade 9 by the expected age.
As found in other analyses of transitions through school,8 educational attainment (measured by progress through school) varies along economic and racial lines. These differences become more pronounced as children advance through the grades. Gender differences in school progression, on the other hand, have remained consistent and even widened over the years: girls are more likely than boys to progress through school at the expected rate and the difference becomes more pronounced in the higher grades. In 2017, 91% of girls aged 10 – 11 had completed grade 3, compared with 87% of boys; in the same year, 77% of 16 – 17-year-old girls had completed grade 9, compared only 61% of boys in the same age cohort. This finding is consistent with analyses elsewhere.9
There are significant differences in grade completion across income quintiles, especially amongst children who have completed grade 9: in 2018, 64% of 16 – 17-year-olds in the poorest 20% of households had completed grade 9, compared to 84% in the richest 20% of households. The most striking improvements in grade progression, at both grade 3 and grade 9 level, occurred through the years betwen 2002 and 2010. The rate of improvement has slowed and in some years remained stable since then.
Of course, grade progression and grade repetition are not easy to interpret. Prior to grade 12, the promotion of a child to the next grade is based mainly on the assessment of teachers, so the measure may be confounded by the extent of the teacher’s competence to assess the performance of the child. Analyses of the determinants of school progress and drop-out point to a range of factors, many of which are interrelated: there is huge variation in the quality of education offered by schools. These differences largely reflect the historic organisation of schools into racially defined and inequitably resourced education departments. Household-level characteristics and family background also account for some of the variation in grade progression. For example, the level of education achieved by a child’s mother explains some of the difference in whether children are enrolled at an appropriate age and whether they go on to complete matric successfully.10 This in turn suggests that improved educational outcomes for children will have a cumulative positive effect for each subsequent generation.