Everything Expats Need to Know About South African Schools

Relocating with school-age children is one of the biggest challenges a family can face.

Having spent the better part of two decades managing a tutoring agency, I have assisted many relocating families to make informed school choices for their children. And since my own children attend the local US international school which follows the northern hemisphere academic calendar (August to May), I am fully conversant with the various school systems.

Furthermore, having done my Masters’ research on the criteria used by parents for finding a High School Match, I can speak with some authority on school placement. Bearing in mind that schools’ leadership and ethos evolve over time, this knowledge-base must be continuously updated.

Choosing a South African School

International Options:

Many relocating parents automatically send their children to an international school, as it makes for an easier transition, and companies typically pay the tuition. The only two international schools in South Africa that operate on the northern hemisphere calendar are:

  • American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ) with two campuses – one in Johannesburg North (1000 students, pre-K to 12) and one in Pretoria (300 students, pre-K to 6 (with only 40% American school body)
  • Lycée Français Jules Verne in Sandton with 800 students and bilingual instruction and a Pretoria branch with 130 scholars (nursery to Grade 5)

Other international schools are: (this is not an exhaustive list)

  • Deutsche Internationale Schule in Johannesburg, with 1000 students from 27 different countries and bilingual instruction (offering both an SA stream and the German International ‘Abitur’); a learner support centre – the Phoenix Centre – (a support facility attached to the school)
  • International School of SA in Mafikeng (300 km from Johannesburg), with 800 students from Primary to Year 13, offering boarding facilities
  • International School of Cape Town, offering a British International experience
  • Hout Bay International School, following the IGCSE with the IB Diploma programme – IBDP (there are only 2 IBDP schools in SA – AISJ & Hout Bay International School)
  • American International School of Cape Town, with 500 students from 60 countries, following the US curriculum and offering AP classes
  • Blouberg International School in Cape Town, with students from age 3 to 18 doing the British curriculum
  • Deutsche Internationale Schule in Cape Town with a bilingual stream from Grade 5, offering both the SA school qualification and the German International ‘Abitur’; also have a Learner Support Centre

Local Schools

Then are many SA private schools – monastic (single-sex), co-educational, boarding, traditional.  Factors to consider are:

Cost: if self-funded, you should consider the local private schools, as they generally charge less than the International Schools listed above.

Location: Location is one of the most important criteria to consider when selecting a school in Johannesburg or Cape Town. Most schools in SA do not have a school bus service, so commuting through peak-hour traffic is a consideration; schools often begin by 7:30 am and finish after 4:00 pm, if you take extra-curricular activities into account.

School year: the local school year follows the southern hemisphere’s academic calendar and is therefore opposite to that of U.S. and European schools – it begins in mid-January and ends in early December, with several month-long breaks in between. As a result, expat kids will likely be put back half a grade, because most local schools insist on social promotion – pairing kids with their age cohort, irrespective of their academic status or history. The international schools that follow the northern hemisphere calendar bring another challenge: they observe their own national holidays, so child-care arrangements may be required if both parents are working for SA-based companies observing SA holidays.

Academics: Private schools in SA are comparable in level to private U.K. schools (they consistently score at the top in international examinations) but British schools are typically 1 to a 1 ½ years ahead, as a result of beginning school earlier (Reception years). E.g. SA children don’t learn how to read until age 7, which makes the difference even more pronounced in the early grades. Therefore, if it is important to parents that their children continue on the same curriculum standard as before, an international school will present fewer academic discrepancies when returning home.

Subject Advancement/Accelerated learning: For truly personalised learning and self-pacing, home schooling via e-learning is the only option. There is no gifted child differentiation in SA schools; so for children’s personal advancement, only online learning of international curriculae, such as offered by CambriLearn, would enable that.

Duration of contract: If the family is staying on a short-term contract, an international school placement means the least disruption to family life in terms of education.

Friends & co-curricular activities: International schools have a significantly higher staff turnover than local schools, and the student body also tends to be more open to diversity and newcomers. International Schools offer limited sports codes when compared to local schools, which offer after-school sports from the earliest grades, including inter-school competitions.

Testing skills: SA schools are not as enamoured with standardised testing, especially multiple-choice type questions, so expect a lot more writing in SA tests/exams.

Student Discipline: SA local schools require school uniforms and place more emphasis on polite and respectful behaviour towards elders. The SA school system also employs an extensive merit & demerit system. This is a very different disciplinary environment, with different customs, and requires some adjustment.

SA schools also require that a second language be learnt in line with the country’s multilingualism, so be prepared for your children to be obligated to learn Afrikaans or isiZulu, both African languages of little value overseas.

Making the transition easier

Children tend to settle much quicker if they find their favourite pastime, sports, cinemas, favourite fast foods etc. Finding the right school for a child is the top priority. Although the educational curriculum is a critical consideration, studies also stress the importance of spending time with your kids, and there is no better way of doing this than by home-schooling, for instance. Alternatively, you can also use online curriculae to help support their transition, wherever there are identified knowledge gaps (which can arise purely from timing differences of how syllabi are structured world-wide, even when moving from one international school to another).

Should you be home schooled, peer socialisation can be provided by aligning with a home school co-op which provides home-school groups offering a wide age-range of group activities; furthermore, extra-curricular clubs, such as sports leagues and community centres, are often enlisted to ensure home-school children experience team work, under a leader in a group setting. CambriLearn has over 80 affiliate tutor centres all over the country to cater for these social and care-giving needs: this is even more critical when both parents work or are unable to school their own children.

School admission

Many SA private schools are over-subscribed and even international schools sometimes have wait-listed applicants. This is because there is an extreme shortage of private schools in SA.

So as a stop-gap measure, you may have to home-school until a space becomes available at your preferred regular school. CambriLearn offers the British International curriculum from age 5 to 18, via online schooling, with live teaching and continuous coursework assessment, and is open all year round for admission, not even requiring student visas (which can be another headache to acquire, for dependent children). International students are only permitted to study at an SA school with a valid study visa/permit (typically as an accompanying dependent of a work visa holder).

Educational differences are not so easily accommodated by regular SA schools, since they often compete reputationally, by academic results. So learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD can be considered special needs and may require referral to a special needs school (of which none are international) rather than a mainstream one; if your child has any special needs, make sure you check thoroughly what your school of choice is prepared to do to help your child. Again, the alternative is to home school, to allow for more individualised learning strategies and more personalised, and flexible pacing of learning as well as timing of exams. CambriLearn allows for this kind of self-paced learning and flexible examination timings.

I hope that this write-up has given you some sense of the spectrum of educational choices available to you in SA and answered some of your burning questions. As expat families know, “(t)ravel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” (Mark Twain) and although you should “…never let… schooling interfere with… education” (Twain), it can be comforting to know that the right fit is available. It might just take some further research and consultation by a knowledgeable local educationalist.

For school placement advice, please feel free to contact Hugo Mendes 074 172 3517 or hugo@cambrilearn.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *