Education System in South Africa

South Africa, also known as “Republic of South Africa (RSA)” is situated in the southern part of Africa. It is the 25th largest country in the globe by land area that extends along the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It encompasses a varied group of people, culture, religion and languages. 

South African Educational Background: Snapshot

Education in South Africa has transformed substantially. In the middle 17th Century was the first European school established in Cape Colony. In 1663, second school was opened. Peripatetic teachers used to teach basic math and language. New procedures on school organization were introduced in 1714. Between 1860 and end of 19th century many schools were opened, and new rules and procedures were initiated. Also, basic and higher or tertiary education was structured as separate educational institutions. In 1829, the South African government established South African College, now called as University of Cape Town. During 1984-1990 periods, education was made mandatory for all, but the age varies depending upon the racial groups. In 1996, the South African Schools Acts was put into effect that emphasized on uniform system and in 1997, a new education system called “Curriculum 2005-Outcome based Education” was initiated by the government.  

South African Education System Profile

Education in South Africa is managed and regulated by two national departments- 
  • Department of Basic Education (DBE): This department is in charge of basic education that encompasses primary as well as secondary education. 
  • Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET): This department is in charge of higher education and vocational training institutions, adult basic education and training (ABET), and further education and training (FET) colleges.  
South Africa possesses a single national education system that is administered by the national Department of Education and the nine provincial departments. 

In South Africa, as per the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996, the state holds a responsibility to make basic education available to all the local individuals. All South Africans have the right to a basic education, along with further education and adult basic education. 

Understanding the Education System

South Africa has Basic Education System and Higher Education System. The Department of Basic Education categorizes Basic Education System into 'two' bands- General Education and Training (GET) and Further Education and Training (FET). 

The Basic Education System consists of Primary and Secondary schools. The Primary Schools run from Grade 1 to Grade 7, and Secondary Schools or High Schools run from Grade 8 to Grade 12. Once the Secondary schooling is over, students can attend the Higher Education and Training, or Tertiary Education.  

Compulsory Education

According to the South African Schools Act 1996, Compulsory Education in South Africa starts at the age of 6 years and continues until 15 years of age. 
  • Grades: 1 to 9
Kids can even go for the 'reception year’ or otherwise known as Grade R or Grade 0, from the age of four years. The first grade begins at the age of 5-6 years. School education lasts for 13 years, from grade 0 to grade 12, or matric-the matriculation year. In South Africa, there are two types of schools- Private and Public Schools. 

Basic Areas of Education: During compulsory education, the following subjects are taught-
  • Language, Literacy and Communication
  • Mathematical Literacy, Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences
  • Human and Social Sciences
  • Natural Sciences
  • Technology
  • Arts and Culture
  • Economic and Management Sciences
  • Life Orientation

Three Bands of Education

South Africa's National Qualifications Framework (NQF) acknowledges three broad bands of education-
  • General Education and Training
  • Further Education and Training
  • Higher Education and Training

General Education and Training

The General Education and Training, or Primary Education includes mandatory education years, i.e. from grade 0 to grade 9. 


Public preschools are offered by some of the provincial departments of education. Kids up to the age of 7 may attend preschools in South Africa. Preschool is divided into two grades-
  •  Pre-Grade R: This grade is for kids up to the age of 4 years. 
  • Grade R: This grade is for kids up to the age of 5-6 years.  
In both grades kids learn a language and life skills, arts, mathematics, technology, and cultural classes.

The General Education and Training also comprises of the Adult Basic Education and Training.
  • Grades: 0 to 9
 The General Education and Training is split up into 3 phases-
  • Foundation Phase: This phase runs from grade 0 to grade 3.
  • Junior Primary Phase/Intermediate Phase: This phase lasts for 3 years. It covers grades 4 to 6, and students learn to read, write and calculate, as well as the basics of a second language. 
  • Senior Phase: This phase lasts for 3 years. It covers grades 7 to 9, and students learn history, mathematics, science and geography. They also obtain oral and reading proficiency in both their first and second language.

Further Education and Training

Further Education and Training runs from grade 10 to 12, levels 2 to 4 of the National Qualifications Framework, or the National Certificate levels 1 to 3 in technical colleges. This level of education focuses on career-oriented education and training at private colleges, technical colleges and community colleges. The qualifications recognised at this level are diplomas and certificates.

After completing the 12th grade or the Senior Secondary Education, pupils are required to sit for a written examination that includes at least 6 subjects. After passing the examination, a Senior Certificate is awarded to the pupils.  
  • Grades: 10 to 12

Higher Education and Training, or Tertiary Education

Higher Education and Training, also called as Tertiary Education includes education for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, certificates, diplomas, and doctoral degrees.

Higher Education Institutions: Snapshot

In South Africa, there are 3 types of public higher education institutions-
  • Traditional Universities
  • Technikons and Universities of Technology 
  • Comprehensive Universities
Technikons and Universities of Technology: These Universities provide programmes in applied fields- such as business, health sciences, design, performing arts, engineering, technology, and many more.

Comprehensive Universities: These Universities are formed from the amalgamation of technikons and Universities of Technology with traditional universities, and provide courses in the fields of traditional arts and science along with those provided by technikons or universities of technology.

Traditional Universities: Traditional higher education has been into existence in South Africa since 1829 when the South African College of Cape Town was established to train pupils for matriculation examinations. These Universities provide a broad range of degree programmes at both the Undergraduate and Postgraduate level. 

Higher Education Qualification: A Quick Look

Following are the Higher Education Qualifications in South Africa-

Bachelor’s Degree: This degree generally lasts for 3 years, but for a few of the professional disciplines, such as engineering, law, architecture, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, music and fine arts, it lasts for 4-6 years. 
  • Credentials Awarded:  Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Commerce (Bcom), and Bachelor of Science (BSc) 
Bachelor’s Honors Degree:  This degree takes one additional year of study beyond the general 3-year bachelor’s degree. 

Master’s degree: This degree programme lasts for 1-2 years of full-time study. 

Doctorate Degree: This degree requires at least 2 years of study beyond the master’s degree.

Private Higher Education

According to the Higher Education Act of 1997, the private higher education institutions can provide degree programmes, provided they are registered with the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE) and accredited by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC). In South Africa, there are 4 types of private higher education institutions- foreign institutions, private technical and vocational institution, colleges offering tuition-based distance learning courses, lifelong learning centers established by private companies to train their workforce. 

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary depending upon the Institution and Course of study. For a specific breakdown of the admittance requisites for a particular programme, contact the concerned Institutions. 

Pupils applying to Higher Education Institutions in South Africa must possess their school qualifications assessed by the Matriculation Board on behalf of Higher Education South Africa (HESA). They will get a matriculation endorsement on their certificates indicating that they satisfy the admission prerequisites for a particular degree programme at any South African Higher Education Institution. To attain a technical qualification, a standard school-leaving South African Senior Certificate is required. International Students are required to apply to obtain a Matriculation Exemption, which substantiates that their foreign qualification fulfills the admission requirements. 

Academic Year

The Academic Year in South Africa Institutions commences in January and continues until December.

Entrance Examinations

In South Africa, Universities accept pupils on the basis of standardized test scores-

National Senior Certificate Scores: The NSC is a school-leaving certificate in South Africa that is needed for admittance to South African Universities. It is also known as “matriculation” (Matric) Certificate.  

National Benchmark Tests (NBT): Students who wish to further their studies in Higher Education Institutions in South Africa have to sit for a National Benchmark Test. The NBT is an assessment for entry-level students to South African Institutions.
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