Seeds of their struggle: the features of under- and overage enrolment among Grade 4 learners in South Africa

Author(s): Mabogoane, Thabo; Shindler, Jennifer; Akoobhai, Bina; Taylor, Nick

Organisation(s): Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (UK); UK. Dept for International Development; South Africa. University of the Witwatersrand. Education Polity Unit (EPU)

Date: 2010

Pages: 24 p.


This paper examines the question of over- and underage children in South African schools in the fourth grade. We look at the relative proportions of children who are at the right age for the grade and either over or under aged, the poverty range and gender balance of each of these fractions, and their respective performances in literacy and numeracy. The data is drawn from the National School Effectiveness Study, a research programme which followed a cohort of learners through grades 3, 4 and 5 in a random stratified sample of 268 South African schools from 2007 to 2009. The paper reveals that a high number of children are not experiencing meaningful learning, and so are failing to master basic skills in literacy and numeracy, and not progressing through the grades at the appropriate ages. This suggests that although the majority of South Africa’s children complete nine years of basic education, South Africa’s exclusion problems, that grow significantly in the last three years of secondary schooling, are being laid down in CREATE’s zone 3: children are enrolled in primary school but not make sufficient progress to keep up with their peers, thus falling progressively behind, repeating grades and posing a high drop-out risk. By Grade 4 35% of children are overage, although it is not clear what fraction is due to late school entry, and how much is the result of grade retention. It is clear that learner scores on the NSES literacy and numeracy tests confirm what every other testing programme tells us about the poor state of learning which characterises the system: the seeds of low pass rates at Grade 12 level, and of low participation and throughput rates in further and higher education, are sown in the first three years of schooling. What the present study adds to this picture is that overage children perform less well than their appropriately aged peers, gain less learning from one year to the next, generally come from poorer homes than their appropriately aged peers, and are predominantly male. This is a major problem in the system, and giving explicit attention to it must constitute a significant component of any strategy to address the very poor learning outcomes of the school system, the slow progress of learners through the grades, and the high rate of dropouts in the last three years of the secondary school. What is to be done? First, in order to help low performing learners to achieve at acceptable levels, interventions must begin in the first three years of schooling and before. Access to good quality early childhood development programmes is essential as there is growing evidence that learners who have participated in such programmes or some pre-primary schooling, do better in school than those who have not. Second, the question must be asked whether grade repetition that involves receiving the identical learning programme received the previous year is beneficial, or whether a remedial programme would not be more appropriate.

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