The age factor at primary and secondary schools was recently in the spotlight, following a violent incident at Forest High School where a pupil was allegedly stabbed to death by a schoolmate who is 19 years old and in Grade 11.
Two other pupils involved in the fight were injured and the alleged attacker has since appeared in court and was released on R5 000 bail.
The incident has raised questions about what the acceptable age of an average school pupil should be, in relation to the grade they are in.
Professor Felix Maringe, an education expert and head of the University of Witwatersrand's School of Education, said primary and secondary schools sometimes admitted over-aged pupils for ethical reasons of fairness and impartiality.
Some of the reasons would be that sometimes, principals look at the type of community the pupils come from before making a decision on whether to admit them or not. The historical background of the community plays a role before a decision of admission is made.
Many pupils who were over-aged and/or cannot read and write often contributed to "undesirable" situations in schools, Maringe said.
While not all over-aged pupils were necessarily a problem in schools, some do tend to become one. The issues were evident by the pupils getting involved in drugs and gangs, which was often a situation that educators were ill-equipped to deal with, he said.
"The equity issue there is to provide access to over-aged kids even when they probably do not meet statutory requirements to get into schools, to access education. I think many of them (schools) do this simply because of the historical past [of the pupil]."
Maringe added that there was what he called "widespread wastage" of children who either dropped out, repeated grades, failed or do not complete both primary and secondary phases of schooling.
He said the wastage was strongly related to issues of poverty, mainly affecting black pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Our research in rural provinces in South Africa indicates that the highest dropout rates occur at critical transition stages such as at the end of Grade 3, before children move to the senior phase of primary schooling.
The primary and secondary school must be made compulsory
"There is also a significant spike in dropping out in Grade 6, as schools cull children who are considered inadequately prepared to write the secondary school qualifying tests in Grade 7.
"Our research shows that almost 20% of learners who start Grade 1 do not complete all the seven years of primary education."
During his court appearance, 19-year-old Mohammed Mwela, who is facing a murder charge for allegedly stabbing fellow pupil Daniel Bakwela to death outside the Turffontein school, Magistrate Basimane Molwana raised a question about his age in relation to his grade.
The Gauteng education department's spokesperson, Steve Mabona, could not give an immediate response with regards to what the policy was around age, and how Mwela was allowed to be in Grade 11 as a 19-year-old.
Maringe said South Africa had failed to provide quality foundation phase education.
According to the South African Schools Act (SASA 84) of 1996, primary education for children between the ages of seven and 15 is compulsory. However, secondary schooling is not.
"In my view, both primary and secondary schooling must be made compulsory. In countries where this is the case, incidents of over-aged learners have been largely eliminated.
"Second, more resources need to be diverted to schools to teach basic reading and numeracy skills. The focus of primary school, perhaps up to Grade 5, must be to teach learners reading and numeracy," said Maringe.
He added that teacher preparation programmes in South Africa needed to invest a lot more training to the teaching of reading and numeracy.
Meanwhile, Equal Education's Roné McFarlane said pupils repeating grades in school only heightened their likelihood of becoming a significant contributor to the high dropout rate.
She added that the root of the problem of pupils repeating grades and eventually finishing when they were almost adults (and some adults), was that South Africa had failed to provide a quality foundation phase education across the country.
Issues lie within the foundation phase
While the national department of education had tried to address the dilemma with its progression policy, it, however, was not addressing the underlying issue that schools were not doing enough to ensure that pupils in lower grades were prepared to move to the next class, McFarlane emphasised.
"Almost 80% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. These learning gaps are entrenched and worsen as learners move through the education system and eventually lead to high repetition and dropout rates."
McFarlane added that government needed to recognise that the main issues lie within the foundation phase education and needed to commit the necessary resources to remedy the problems.
It was crucial that foundation phase student-teachers be adequately prepared by universities (pre-service training), and that existing teachers upskilled, to educate the youth, she said.
"Foundation phase teachers must be capacitated (through pre-service and in-service training); must be supported by government education officials, parents and the broader public; must be well-remunerated; and must teach in environments that are dignified, safe, and well-resourced," said McFarlane.