11 Factors to Consider When Choosing a South African School

Now that we’ve been here for a while and gained a better understanding of our school, I’d like to share my opinions. After all, if you’re faced with relocating your family here, your number one concern (after security) will be the quality of your kids’ schooling.

Many expats automatically send their children to an international school, just because it makes for an easier transition, and companies typically pay the tuition.

The international schools in Johannesburg are (I don’t claim to have an exhaustive list): The American International School of Johannesburg with two campuses – one at the Northern end of Greater Johannesburg (680 students, pre-K to 12) and one in Pretoria (120 students, pre-K to 6 – a very international student body (over 40%), English instruction, and the International Baccalaureate on offer in its High School; The French International School or Lycée français Jules Verne in Sandton with 800 students,  a 55% non-French student body and bilingual instruction; and the German International School or Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg, one of the  oldest local schools (founded it 1890), with 970 students from 27 different countries and bilingual instruction.

Then there are the many South African private schools – single sex, co-ed, boarding, you name it, some with very strong traditions and family ties going back several generations. There are, of course, public schools as well, and some of them have excellent reputations, but as it is unlikely for expats to send their kids to a public South African school I won’t go into further detail. Also see my list of private schools in Johannesburg.

The private school we chose for our kids is Dainfern College, a pre-K to 12 South African private school of about 1000 students, nestled between three large security estates in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. A comparable co-ed school with several campuses sprinkled across Johannesburg is Crawford. Since our choice was between the American International School and Dainfern College, I will focus on those two while discussing the factors you should consider:

1. Cost of Private School in South Africa

Not much of a factor if your company pays the school fees, but you still might want to find out what exactly they pay and don’t pay (like uniforms, extracurricular courses, bus service etc.). If you are paying yourself, you should give the local private schools a close look, as they cost less than half of what you pay at the American International School of Johannesburg.

2. Location

This is something you should research diligently, together with the place you choose to live relative to your place of work; just because something looks close on the map doesn’t mean you’ll get there quickly during rush hour – as explained elsewhere, Joburg traffic is horrific, so the closer you can be to anything, the better. The American School is located out in the country and has a bus service (for a steep extra fee), with traffic not quite so bad as you’re going somewhat against the flow, but nevertheless it will add to your kids’ school day. Pickup is as early as 6:00 am and dropoff after 4:00 pm, whereas our kids (who walk to school) leave shortly after 7:00 am and come home between 1:15 pm and 2:30 pm (without extracurricular activities; for an excellent write-up of Dainfern College and how it is so conveniently located read this article).

3. Southern Hemisphere School Year vs Regular School Year

The South African school year, much like that of Australia, is aligned with the Southern Hemisphere’s flow of seasons and therefore opposite to that of U.S. and European schools – it begins in mid-January and ends in early December, with two 3-or-so-week breaks and a number of holidays in between. The huge disadvantage of that is that your kids will likely go back a half a grade, because most local schools insist on pairing kids with their age group, regardless of their academic standing or history. The international schools, however, typically follow their country’s school year, so if losing that half-year is a concern to you, you are better off with an international school. However, that brings another challenge: International schools also follow the home country’s holidays, so you could end up with your kids off for Labor Day weekend while you have to work, while your office is closed for Freedom Day in April, but your kids are at school. If you want to take advantage of living here by doing some extensive travelling, the South African school calendar will be more friendly towards your vacation planning.

4. Academics in South Africa vs USA

This is the issue we grappled with the most, and I’m still not sure that I know enough to write about this without doing someone injustice. But here are my initial observations: South African schools are academically behind U.S. schools. Our headmaster didn’t like the term “behind” at all when we discussed our kids with him, but acknowledged that kids coming from the U.S. and also the U.K. are typically ahead about a year (a year and a half if you count the half-year school calendar difference). This was very apparent from the start, particularly in the boys’ math classes and also Sunshine’s reading class. South African children don’t learn how to read until age 6-7, which makes the difference even more pronounced in the early grades. I’m actually not judging this at all – there are studies that will tell you early reading and writing can crowd out important other learning experiences for preschool and Kindergarten kids – but here we were, with Sunshine having read chapter books for years and her classmates struggling to sound out words. Any pleading and cajoling to advance our kids to the next grade fell onto deaf ears. This is not unusual, I’ve since learned, as South African school administrators love nothing more than age-appropriate grouping and have big fears that “social integration” might suffer if kids are too young for their grade. The fact that our kids are all small for their age was introduced as further evidence in favor of the status quo. This line of reasoning practically shut down our request – we knew that if we did insist on the kids being advanced, every problem in the future would be reduced to “see, we told you they weren’t ready.” Our worry is not at all that the kids might be bored – they’re not – but that upon our eventual return they will have fallen behind. I’m sure they’ll catch up quickly enough, but the grade the boys had skipped in math will likely be lost. Therefore, if it is important to you that your kids continue the same curriculum as before, the American School is probably a safer bet (although I have no first-hand knowledge of their academic level; we only visited once and I have to say that we weren’t overly impressed with it all, which was one reason we decided to investigate Dainfern College, but I lack any sort of tangible evidence. As for Dainfern College, they consistently score at the top in national and international examinations, a fact that has prompted me to be a little less concerned about any purely academic discrepancies).

5. Subject Advancement/Gifted Education

Dainfern College, our school, offers none of that. Smart kids are “extended” in class by their teacher as is deemed necessary. My guess is that the American School is more flexible with that and would have honored any existing subject advancements.

6. Length of Stay

If you know you’re only here for a year, it might be easiest to stay with what you know and send your kids to the American School. They’ll quickly make friends, continue their learning where it was left off, and everything will be familiar. If you’re here for the long haul, switching to the South African school year won’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.

7. Turnover

International schools have a significantly higher turnover than local ones, with new kids arriving and others leaving at a fast clip. I have wondered if that doesn’t affect the academic level somehow, but I’m sure those schools would vehemently dispute that.

8. Friends

If your children need stability and lasting friendships, a local school will offer more of that. They might take longer to make new friends, though. South Africans, while friendly in general, are not as outgoing as Americans. There were quite a few days at the beginning when I’d drop off my kids at school, only to see them standing around shyly with everyone else ignoring them. But that’s a thing of the past and by now they’ve all found nice friends (and a good portion of self-confidence at having mastered a “scary” transition). No doubt will it be easier to make new friends (for your kids, but perhaps even more so for you) at the American School, with everybody in the same boat and eager to meet new people, but making local friends and getting to know the country you’re living in will give you great satisfaction in the long run.

9. Extracurricular Activities/Sports

This was somewhat a factor for us. The American School offers all the American sports, but only for the higher grades, and with what I assume must be somewhat limited competition, as it must be restricted to other international schools. Dainfern College offers after-school sports from the earliest grades, including competition with other schools. The convenience of our kids participating in whatever the school offers, free of additional charge, without any after-school driving around on my part, was a powerful argument for this school. However, we’ve since found out that there are some holes in that argument, for instance that girls aren’t allowed to participate in all sports, which I will elaborate on later in a special sports section.

10. Life Skills

I can’t speak for all South African private schools, but Dainfern College places a huge premium on the overall development of the child, not just his or her academic achievements. There are some subjects you simply won’t find at a U.S. school, and you won’t find any “teaching to the test” mentality. One detail I love is that there are practically no multiple-choice tests. Maybe I’m old fashioned and biased as a writer, but the idea that my kids have to write actual prose in all subjects is very comforting to me. There are numerous outreach projects into the surrounding communities, and “entrepreneur days” to further integrate learning.

11. Discipline

Our kids’ biggest hangup about Dainfern College was having to wear school uniforms for the first time in their lives. You wouldn’t believe what an earful we got about that in the weeks leading up to our move. Funny enough, those complaints all but disappeared after the first week. I’ve written about school uniforms elsewhere, but just want to say here that I do feel they convey a certain level of discipline in and of themselves. In addition, the school makes a big effort for kids to be polite and respectful, so when you walk around campus on any given day, you will be greeted with “good afternoon ma’m” or “good afternoon sir” numerous times. The school also employs an extensive merit system (thoughts of the Gryffindor Hour Glass are never far from my mind, in fact one of their houses is Griffin) which some of our kids have become very competitive about.

We’re very happy with our school choice. Our (admittedly biased) theory is that visiting a local school and “doing as the Romans do” will prove to be a positive experience for our children. It certainly is easier to go with the familiar, especially if you’re already uprooting them from their surroundings, but being plunged into a very different environment, having to observe different customs, and persevering through some adversity will benefit you in the long run.

Dainfern College offers a nice balance of academics, music, and sports. The school hours are shorter than before and the homework less. The kids seem to be more balanced than in our previous hectic U.S. life. Maybe that’s because I’m the one who is more balanced, not having to drive around creation for fifteen different sports teams but instead having my kids walk home from school whenever they’re done with their sports there. They’re learning new things, like Zulu and Afrikaans, field hockey, cricket, and netball (ok – I could do without netball, I admit). Jabulani plays in the orchestra, Impatience has restarted her piano lessons – they have teachers who come to school to teach DURING school hours, another thing I don’t have to run around for after school. Zax has already participated in a leadership seminar and has access to a special class helping him be organized (not of his own choice, he will tell you) and has had time to take up diving, which the school supports with an extracurricular diving club. We believe that what the kids might lag behind in purely academic teachings they will more than make up with the cool new things they are learning here, through the school and life in general in an exciting new country.

One additional note if you’re an expat actually considering moving here – whatever you end up deciding regarding schools, make sure you investigate your options early and apply for a space for your child, so that you can be placed on a waitlist in case availability should be limited. Visit www.isasa.org or www.studysa.co.za for more information on South African education.

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