Good news on girls' enrolment and achievement in SA schools
Encouraging news reported on girls' enrolment and achievement in South African schools.

During Women’s Month in South Africa, we commemorate the significant role that women played in the struggle for freedom and focus our attention on the position of women and girls in our society.

Shocking reports of abuse of women and girls and the marginalisation of poor women remind us that the emancipation and empowerment of women have not yet been achieved, despite the progress made since 1994.

As education is critical for the empowerment of women and the education of girls produces huge benefits for society, we need to ask the question: how do girls fare in our schooling system? The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has looked at this important development issue.

Girls’ enrolment

International statistics paint a depressing picture: girls are more than 70 percent of the 125 million children world-wide who do not have a school to attend, and fewer girls than boys enrolled in the first grade complete the first cycle of primary school.

By contrast South Africa has effectively achieved gender parity - unlike most developing countries. For example, more girls (97%) have completed grade 6 in South Africa than in the 10 other southern and eastern African countries. In 2013 in our schooling system as a whole, there were only about 100 000 more boys than girls from grades R to 12: some 6.3 million boys as opposed to 6.2 million girls.

By high school, however, girls dominate. Girls start to outnumber boys in grade 10, and more girls than boys reach grade 12: some 330 000 girls vs 270 000 boys. In fact, girls make up 55% of public school learners in grade 12.

The reasons for this are complex but in the main are linked to the enrolment of African learners because of their numerical dominance. Analysts have offered a range of explanations for boys’ drop-out at high school: the migrant labour system and more unskilled employment opportunities for African men encourage boys to drop out of high school; poor families need boys to work to bring in extra money; boys typically do not do as well at school as girls and so the incentive for them to stay in school is low; the high rate of youth unemployment, even with a matric pass, is another demotivating factor; and the controversial idea that because a higher ‘lobola’ or bride price is paid to the father of an educated African woman, it pays a family to keep their daughters in school.

Whatever the causes, the fact that so many boys are dropping out of school without a matric certificate traps them in low-level employment or they join the already huge ranks of the unemployed.

When the gender enrolments in independent schools in South Africa are examined, a similar picture emerges. In 2013, across all 12 grades in independent schools, girls constituted 51% of learners (240 000 girls vs 230 000 boys). More boys than girls are found in the lower grades (as in public schools) but by grade 7 the number of girls overtakes the number of boys, earlier than in public schools. In the last three years of schooling girls constitute 53% of learners.

Socio-economic conditions are a key factor. In independent high schools that cater for middle and upper-class children, there is no real evidence of boys dropping out, but in the low-fee ones that serve disadvantaged communities, the drop-out of boys is very significant. Statistics provided by the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) for 2014 show that in its low-fee high schools 62.5% of the learners are female. Clearly poor girls are taking advantage of the educational opportunities these schools offer and are staying in school.

The facts show that in both public and independent schools, girls fare better than boys in terms of completing schooling, but completion does not guarantee learning achievement - mastery of the needed skills and competencies. This means we must ask how well girls achieve at school.

Girls’ achievement

Once again the picture is positive: the 2012 National Senior Certificate (NSC) results show that more girls than boys passed the NSC, and 54.6% of the  Bachelor’s degree passes (university entrance passes) were awarded to girls.

CDE conducts ongoing research into mathematics achievement in South Africa because this is a gateway subject that opens up most higher education opportunities and it is a critical competence for the development of sorely needed high-level skills.

Here again the picture is encouraging: the 2012 results of the state NSC show that almost equal numbers of girls and boys passed mathematics. However, 54% of candidates who achieved a quality mathematics pass with a score of 50% or higher, were boys.

The results of the 2012 NSC of the Independent Examinations Board are similar: while slightly more girls (51%) passed mathematics, 1% more boys obtained distinctions.

It is true that the quality of South African schooling as a whole is poor, as international comparative surveys and our own Annual National Assessments have shown, and educational quality is essential for high learning achievement. However, that should not stop us celebrating the evidence that girls are staying the course in school and holding their own in demanding subjects like mathematics. This augurs well for their futures and development of the country: “educate a girl and you educate a nation”.

Dr Jane Hofmeyr
Senior Consultant: Education
Centre for Development and Enterprise

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