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Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP13/2011


School retention in South Africa and performance in the major school-leaving matric examination are characterised by significant inequalities on the basis of race and socio-economic status. In order to know at what point in the educational trajectory policy interventions and school improvement programmes will be most effective, it is necessary to trace the development of these educational inequalities to earlier phases of schooling and before. This paper reports on findings from a unique dataset that tracks individuals who participated in TIMSS in 2002 as grade 8 students to matric in 2006 and 2007. This permits an investigation into the extent to which educational inequalities are already evident by the eighth grade, and what if anything is achieved by secondary schools to reduce them. Several noteworthy findings emerge. The overall level of achievement, at both grade 8 and matric, differs widely across the historically different parts of the school system. There are also intriguing differences in the abilities of different parts of the system to convert grade 8 achievement into matric outcomes. What is clear is that inequalities in the cognitive ability of students at the outset of secondary school persist and that there is no observable evidence of a closing of these gaps by matric. This points to the importance of interventions prior to secondary school – at the primary school level and even at the level of early childhood development. Finally, it is also demonstrated that the decision to take mathematics in matric is characterised by a high degree of randomness within the historically black part of the school system. This points to the value of meaningful assessment practices and feedback to students, which serve as an important signal as to whether or not to choose mathematics as a matric subject.

Keywords: South Africa, Socio-economic Status, Education, Educational Achievement, Educational Inequality

JEL Classification: I20, I21, I30, O15