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Since the 1990s, the South African government has required that people go to school from age 7 to 15. Last December, the government announced that 70% of students passed their final examination to finish high school. In 2008 that rate was about 63%. There have been increases each year since then.
Professor Shireen Motala at the University of Johannesburg says access to basic education is no longer the problem in South Africa. She says most children stay in school until they are about 16. The problem now, she says, is that large numbers of students leave without finishing high school.
Students take an examination known as the “matric” in grade 12. This is their final or "matriculation" year. Professor Motala notes that less than half the children who started school in 2000 took the matric last year.
"Only, I think, around 45% survived, which means that a large number of children are falling by the wayside. And the concern is that where do those learners actually go to."
South Africa has a 24% unemployment rate. Those who drop out have to compete with better-educated people for jobs.
Educational researchers also point to another problem. They say South African schools do not produce enough students with higher education skills in math and science.
One of those researchers is Graeme Bloch. He says many schools are not well-equipped.
"The reality of poverty and resources, that children do not see laboratories and as a result, or partly as a result, their science marks are not very good. They do not have libraries at school. 92% percent of the schools do not have libraries."
Education specialists also say that, in many cases, teachers and school principals do not have the skills or training to do their jobs. In other cases, they are simply not doing their jobs properly.
Professor Motala says a number of teachers were poorly trained during apartheid in South Africa. “Apartheid” was the time of racial separation, which ended in 1994.
Secondly, she says, teachers have been confused by the many educational reform efforts in the last 15 years. And, finally, she thinks language differences in the classroom have not gotten as much attention as they should.
"There is the big issue of language, which we have not taken enough cognizance of, which I think is a huge problem."
Subjects such as math and science are taught in English, starting at about age 10. But South Africa has 11 official languages, and many more unofficial ones.
Angie Motshekga is South Africa's minister of basic education. She promises a number of improvements. She says teacher development efforts will focus on subject and content knowledge. They will also make sure the correct teachers are in the correct jobs.