Did only 51% of children attend school in 1994?

Did the ANC get its facts straight in the party’s 2019 election manifesto? We check a selection of claims.

Claim: School attendance increased “from 51% in 1994 to 99% today”.

What percentage of South African children attend school? The answer depends largely on the age groups included in the calculation.

In its manifesto the ANC claims school attendance has increased from 51% to 99% since 1994. The party told Africa Check/City Press the information was sourced from Stats SA’s General Household Survey and the basic education department.

While children as young as five years can be admitted to Grade 1, school attendance is compulsory from age seven to 15, according to the department. Our fact-check therefore focuses on this age range.

The latest available data on school attendance is from Stats SA’s 2017 General Household Survey. In that year, 98.4% of children aged seven to 15 attended school. A breakdown shows an increase in attendance as children approach compulsory school-going age and a decrease as attendance is no longer compulsory.


Back to 1994

The 2008 report of the ministerial committee on learner retention in the South African schooling system contains calculations of school attendance as far back as 1994. The committee was appointed by the then minister of education, Naledi Pandor, “to conduct an investigation on the extent of retention and dropout in the schooling system”.

The enrolment rates for children aged seven to 15 in 1994 vary between 89.7% and 97.7%. This data was calculated using the 1994 October Household Survey. But Stats SA previously cautioned against using data from this survey because there were sampling and fieldwork issues. The agency pointed to the 1996 census as the earliest reliable data. In that year 89.3% of children aged seven to 15 were in school.


What the numbers don’t tell us

But school attendance rates “alone do not capture the regularity of children’s school attendance or their progress through school”, according to last year’s SA Child Gauge report produced by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town. “Similarly, school attendance rates tell us nothing about the quality of teaching and learning.”

We sent questions to basic education department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga regarding the department’s data on school attendance and the reason some children did not attend school. He acknowledged receipt of the query but could subsequently not be reached by phone, SMS or email.

Verdict: Incorrect

The claim that school attendance rose “from 51% in 1994 to 99% today” is incorrect as, based on the best available data, school attendance was not at 51% in 1994. 

The ANC did provide responses to our questions about the sources of claims in its manifesto, but the party did not make use of an opportunity to comment on our findings.

  • This package is part of a journalism partnership with Africa Check, the continent’s leading fact-checking organisation. The project aims to ensure that claims made by those in charge of state resources and of delivering essential services are factually correct. In the run-up to this year’s national and provincial elections, it is increasingly important that voters are able to make informed decisions.

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