The true cost of our failing education system

Dropout has many influencing factors, both in school and outside of school and turning around dropout rates requires multifaceted interventions that look at quality ECD to prepare children for school, learner support in school and support for families to ensure there are no pull-out factors that drive high dropout rates. Read more about what is driving school dropout here. Photo: Bart Love, August 2018

Despite significant investment in South Africa’s education system[1], far too many children cannot read or write and struggle with basic numeracy. Not only is this robbing our learners of their potential, but it’s also hurting our economy, too, with a new report revealing that grade repetition costs us R20-billion a year.

South Africa’s education system is floundering. The PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) 2016 revealed that 78% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language[2][3]. The 2015 TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) found that two-thirds of Grade 9 learners had Maths scores below the lowest international level of competency. And in May of this year, a ReSEP (Research on Socio-Economic Policy) report*, produced by the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, puts a conservative estimate of the number of learners repeating grades in our public schools at over one million per year. According to the report: “This implies that the cost of having repeaters in the public education system was around R20-billion (in 2018 prices and based on the official data). At these costs, repetition could absorb 8% of the national budget allocated to basic education in 2018/2019.”

Addressing the historic inequities of education is expensive. South Africa already spends a higher proportion of its budget on education than the US, UK, and Germany[4], and yet the country’s repeater rates are high. As a result, less than half of learners aged 17 are on track to complete school at the right age. This is of concern as grade repetition is a strong predictor of school dropout. And while the costs of grade repetition may be high, there are far greater costs to the learner, society and the economy if s/he does not obtain a tertiary level education, or at the very least, a matric. The report concludes that when it comes to the economy, the loss of income a young person could earn with a further education considerably outweighs the price of repetition or higher education.

No easy solutions

Grade repetition is a multi-faceted issue with no easy solutions. As the ReSEP report notes, evidence to support its efficacy is mixed. To limit multiple repetitions, government policy stipulates[5] that learners can only be retained once per school phase i.e. the foundation phase (Grade 1-3), intermediate phase (Grade 4-7), senior phase (Grade 8-9) and the further education and training, or FET phase (Grade 10-12) – even if they do not meet the achievement criteria for grade promotion. Thus, there are learners in high school who are still illiterate and innumerate.

Socio-economic factors play a significant role in our high rates of repetition. Repeaters in wealthier schools are more likely to get the necessary support for improving their learning. Poorer schools are unable to provide these services. The capability of learners varies widely, with teachers barely able to manage large class sizes let alone give repeaters the extra remediation required for them to catch up.

As noted, failing a grade and being older than the typical age are key indicators of school dropout. In South Africa, 300 000 learners drop out of public schools each year without having reached matric, estimates the report. Many had also failed their current grade or were likely to fail, which may add a further R4-billion to the annual cost of failures in the school system. Parental education is strongly linked to children’s educational outcomes and it is likely that the children of school dropouts will repeat the same pattern, thus perpetuating the very cycle of poverty and inequality that education should be working to break.

Warning lights for Grade 10 and Grade 1

Repetition rates in Grade 10 and Grade 1 give cause for the most concern. The ReSEP report shows repetition is highest in Grade 10, at an average of 21% from 2014 to 2018. At this stage, learners start ‘streaming’: studying subjects that will steer them towards a particular career choice. When these learners fail, they often don’t return to school. Attaining just this level of education severely curtails their job prospects and consequently, their earning capacity.

A high percentage of Grade 1s also repeat in South Africa, with estimates ranging from 8% to as many as 15% of learners repeating this grade. This is probably because many children have not attended quality early learning programmes, and are not ready to learn when they enter school. However, the report stressed that some evidence from the Western Cape suggests repetition is likely to have a greater impact on learning amongst repeaters in the earlier foundation phase.

Data collection could be an answer

Efficient data collection may provide a lifeline. Extensive learner data can flag problem areas so they can be addressed early on. The sub-structure already exists as all government schools have school management systems that collect learner data. These systems can capture everything from school attendance, academic results and after-school activities, to stating if a learner is orphaned or vulnerable. However, the data collected often falls short of the level of detail required to paint a more nuanced picture of a learner’s journey through school so we can detect and address problems before it’s too late. Poorer schools also have neither the capacity nor the equipment (computers) to fill in and analyse data forms.

Merle Mansfield, programme director of the DG Murray Trust’s Zero Dropout School Initiative, cautions: “There is no conclusive answer as to whether repetition does or does not work. We haven’t adequately assessed the success or failure of a learner who has repeated and is going through school, and so we don’t have enough data to be able to make a conclusive indication. What we do know is what is driving our high rates of repetition, and so we need to ensure we remove the systemic challenges causing our learners to repeat in the first place. If we tackle these stumbling blocks to learning, more of our children will attain the education they deserve.”

*The ReSEP (Research on Socio-Economic Policy) report, ‘The Cost of Repetition in South Africa’, was commissioned by the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) – a private foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential. To read the full report, click here.

This op-ed authored by Daniella Horwitz, a freelance journalist who focuses on social development issues, first appeared in The Star on 30 August 2019. 

Following the publication of the op-ed Merle Mansfield was interviewed by SAFM 0n 4 September 2019. Listen to the interview here.

Read more about what is driving school dropout here.


[1] Presence, C. (2019) #Budget2019: Education and culture biggest spend items in budget. IOL online, 20 February 2019. Available at:

[2] Howie, S. et al., 2017. Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016. South African Children’s Reading Literacy Achievement. Summary Report., Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.

[3] Reddy, V. et al., 2016. Highlights of Mathematics and Science Achievement of Grade 9 South African Learners, Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.


[5] Department of Basic Education. (2012). National policy pertaining to the programme and promotion requirements of the National Curriculum Statement Grades R-12, published as Government Notices No. 1115 and 1116 in Government Gazette No. 36042. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.

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