The fatal stabbing outside a Joburg school this week has raised concerns over the age limit of pupils in the South African system.
On Monday, 20-year-old Mohammed Moela, who was a Grade 11 pupil at Forest High School, allegedly stabbed his 18-year-old peer Daniel Bakwela to death and injured two others outside the Turffontein school.
Experts are now arguing that placing pupils of varying developmental stages in the same class or grade can create a fertile ground for violence.
But this appears to be a normal standard at schools around the country where some youngsters are up to three years older than their peers.
Gauteng education department spokesperson Steve Mabona told the Saturday Star that according to its policies, 21 is the cut-off age for school-goers.
But DA Gauteng Shadow MEC for Education Khume Ramulifho said the oldest a pupil should be is 19.
Ramulifho argues that beyond that age, youngsters should explore technical, vocational education and training options Adult Basic Education and Training centres and technikons.
He said pupils of different ages and development levels being placed in the same classrooms would find it difficult to relate to each other and also pose challenges for teachers tasked with educating pupils of varying developmental stages.
Ramulifho said pupils who are in a certain grade which is in accordance with their age might academically outperform their older peers and are in a certain class because they might have failed a grade.
He said violence might then erupt in class or on a school’s premises, as was the case at Forest High School, when “older, under-performing pupils feel mocked or undermined”.
The age factor might also be challenging for teachers.
“When there are new teachers who are almost the same age as the learners, it’s not a simple task to get over-age pupils to co-operate in the classroom.
“It also becomes difficult to enforce discipline because some learners physically fight with teachers as they believe they are of the same age or are an adult and expect to be treated as such.”
National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) executive director Basil Manuel said older pupils might also pressurise their younger peers and “make an entire classroom ungovernable”.
“A 13 or 14-year-old is going through different mental and physical changes than an 18 to 19-year-old who might be in the same classroom.”
But Manuel said it would be an oversimplification to assume that older pupils are in a lower grade or even in the schooling system as a whole when they are over the age of 19 simply because they failed a grade as they struggle academically.
“There are a host of socio-cultural reasons for young adults being in the schooling system. In the rural areas, some pupils fail a grade because they struggle to get to a school due to infrastructural or financial reasons.”
Manuel said an overhaul of the schooling system needs to be undertaken to address older pupils sharing a class with those of school-going age.
“We need an education system which caters for children of varying abilities opposed to an academically-oriented system that we have now.
“We are not catering for the large number of children who are not academically inclined and, as a result, we have many youngsters who are repeating certain grades because they are not coping with the academically inclined, unrealistic system.
“We need to cater to all kinds of children so we can reap the rewards of different abilities. If that happened, we wouldn’t have youngsters over the age of 18 or 19 in high school.”
Manuel said that pupils should progress to the next grade with their various age cohorts.
South Africa should follow the example of the US and Europe where those who struggle with a school’s curriculum attend summer school, he said.