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Despite South Africa’s huge problems with crime, corruption and utilities, the ‘Mother City’ continues to attract economic investment, and the workers to go with it, from all over the world.  There are few other cities where the high quality of life (think Mediterranean climate, world class restaurants, wine farms and beaches set against the backdrop of stunning Table Mountain) is paired with such a low cost of living; a bottle of Cape Chenin Blanc with a meal can be half the price of a glass in London or New York. And for those lucky enough to live and work here, whether for a few years or longer term, there is a huge choice of schools. 

Education in Cape Town

The international schools here might not be the biggest or best in the world; there are no famous names setting up satellite campuses, with 50m indoor pools and water-based hockey pitches. However, there is a great range of small to medium sized schools, with academic standards ranging from respectable to excellent and sport that may not be played at the highest level but will at least keep children active and healthy. In and around the city are schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB), UK/Cambridge, American, French and German curricula to a diverse student population.

For those planning on moving back to their home country, the decision might be an easy one. But many families staying longer term, or South Africans moving back from a stint overseas, opt for one of the numerous local curriculum schools which have a large international contingent. Depending on the school, pupils graduate from high school with either the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) leaving ‘matriculation’ qualification, called the National Senior Certificate (NCS), or the equivalent NCS issued by the private Independent Examinations Board (IEB). Both are always known simply as ‘matric’, which is also the name given to the final year of school (grade 12).

Entry to local universities requires the highest level matric pass (those with alternative international qualifications can apply for an exemption). Many of the brightest move on to the highly rated University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University (known as ‘Stellies’) but beware that while most universities worldwide will accept it, Oxford and Cambridge will not, considering it akin to AS levels. In 2022 the IEB launched a new International Secondary Certificate (ISC), which some South African schools are expected to adopt (so far, it’s only been taken in Eswatini, Mozambique and Namibia). It includes Further Studies papers, which are considered equal to A levels, and it should become globally recognised in time.  

Choosing a school in Cape Town

Although Cape Town is a fairly small city, Table Mountain looms large bang in the middle of it, and in the rush hour traffic it can be quite a trek from one side to the other, or top to bottom. With no safe public transport, apart from perhaps the MyCiTi bus along the Atlantic Seaboard for teenagers, and with most parents not allowing their children to walk or cycle on their own at any age, children are dependent on their parents, an informal car pool or a private school bus. The school run, especially if combined with a commute to the office, becomes a crucial factor when considering where to live and send kids to school.

Another consideration is the school year runs from January to December, with the long holiday over Christmas (the South African summer), and only a couple of weeks off in June/July, when many international families want to head north to spend time with families and friends during their long summer break. It’s a bigger problem for international families with older kids moving from one system to the other, especially with the two-year Cambridge IGCSE and A level and the IB diploma courses where children have to either join half way through a school year, missing some crucial learning, or repeat six months. Only Lycée Français du Cap and American International School of Cape Town (AISCT) have adopted the northern hemisphere’s school calendar, with some parents choosing them exactly for this reason. 

All the big schools attract international as well as local families, often with a 30/70 split respectively. Even the local pupils often have two passports, and parents on an international career path. Only the winelands schools currently have boarding facilities, though HBIS and AISCT both have boarding in their sights.

An alternative option in town is one of the many renowned local curriculum single-sex schools such as SACS (South African College School), Wynberg High Boys, Rondebosch Boys and Bishops Diocesan College (‘Bishops’) for boys, and Herschel Girls, Wynberg High Girls, Sans Souci and St Cyprian’s for girls. Some of these are public and some independent – the distinction is blurred as standards are similar and confusingly public schools, or at least those in wealthier areas, charge fees here.

These schools can be quite traditional, with knee-length socks, blazers and strict discipline, and they will probably require pupils to learn Afrikaans as a first additional language, though an exemption may be available for students arriving from grade 8 onwards. They generally have a great reputation for sport and amazing facilities, which attract international students wanting to play rugby, cricket, waterpolo and more at a high level. They are balanced by long-established Capetonian families, where successive generations attend the same school, akin to Eton or Harrow in the UK. Most of these schools have boarding houses, attracting pupils predominantly from elsewhere in South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries, as well as local pupils with busy schedules.

The WECD-mandated school year runs to 43 weeks, spread over four terms, which can be a shock to those used to around 36-38 weeks of school elsewhere, though it can also be helpful for working parents. Even the independent schools above follow a similar calendar. 

One note of caution; the country is in a state of load shedding; planned power cuts of two to four hours at a time on a rolling basis, often multiple times a day, to prevent the complete shutdown of the national grid. Caused by decades of underinvestment, combined with widespread corruption and organised theft of everything from coal destined for the power stations to the cables supposed to be carrying the electricity, this problem is not going away any time soon. Most businesses and schools have had to invest in a combination of generators, inverters and solar panels to ensure the lights stay on, hot lunches can be served, and teaching is uninterrupted; but this is worth checking with individual schools. It’s also a huge factor to consider, along with security, when renting or buying a home. 

Special education needs in Cape Town

The schools all say that they cater for children with special educational needs on a case-by-case basis and will admit a child as long as they think they can provide the necessary support to allow him or her to thrive in their school. Some, like AISCT, have a clearly stated policy on their website detailing the five levels of support available; only level one (minimal support from the classroom teacher and learning support specialist) is included in fees. Most schools will allow and organise a one-on-one facilitator if required, paid for by the parents.

Schools with established ELL (English Language Learners) programmes will accept pupils without fluency in English (up to a specified grade) if they believe the child can thrive with the extra help provided. 

Pre-schools, kindergarten and nurseries in Cape Town

Schooling in South Africa is not compulsory until the year a child is turning seven (grade one), though the optional reception year is strongly recommended by the government and is part of the national CAPS curriculum. Most families will want to start their child much younger than this.
Most of the schools, except Bishops and the German International School, accept children into their early years programme from age two or three, with Reddam House even taking babies from one year old, and HBIS accepting toddlers in nappies.

Another option is to choose from the plethora of private pre-schools dotted around the city, often run out of residential homes and catering for a handful of children. Here, personal recommendations are the best way, and if you don’t know anyone yet, local ‘expat’ Facebook groups can be a good source of information. Do try and visit several to find the best fit, and ensure that it’s properly registered with the Western Cape Government as an ‘early childhood development facility’.

Although some pre-schools include a reception class, don’t expect your child to start to learn to read. Unlike in the UK, phonics is not taught until grade 1 (age six) in local schools, although children may start to recognise letters and numbers.  This can be a barrier to families wanting their children to enter international schools from the local system at age six to eight, as their prospective classmates have been reading for several years already. 

Best schools in Cape Town

American International School of Cape Town 

Advanced Placement/ American Elementary Curriculum/ American Middle School Curriculum/ US High School Diploma; ages 2-18; co-ed; day; 500 students; Independent: private non-profit

The American International School Cape Town for age 2-18 runs a US credit-based system leading to WASC-accredited high school diploma and includes AP classes. Follows northern hemisphere school calendar. 

Click here to read our full review of American International School of Cape Town

Hout Bay International School 

International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme/ International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme/ International Baccalaureate Diploma; ages3-18; co-ed; 400 students; day; Independent: privately owned

Situated in a southern suburb of Cape Town popular with expat families, Hout Bay International School offers the IB curriculum from Primary Years Programme through to the two-year Diploma.

Click here to read our full review of Hout Bay International School

International School of Cape Town 

Cambridge International Secondary 2 Programme/ IGCSE/ National Curriculum for England/ International A levels; ages 3-18; co-ed; day; 470 students; Independent: privately owned

International School of Cape Town (ISCT) offers UK national curriculum to year 9 and Cambridge curriculum from year 10 to 13, divided between two nearby campuses in leafy Wynberg.

Click here to read our full review of International School of Cape Town

These schools have been brought to our attention, but until we have more reports from parents, we are unable to consider reviewing them.

Bishops Diocesan College

Ages 4-18; boys only; day and boarding; Independent: privately owned

Bishops Diocesan College, known as Bishops, is a traditional boys Anglican independent school offering South African matriculation only. Excellent reputation in Cape Town and further afield for sport and discipline.

Blouberg International School

Cambridge curriculum; ages 3-18; co-ed; day; Independent: privately owned

Located in a popular residential area north of Cape Town, Blouberg International School (age 3-18) offers the Cambridge Curriculum and attracts a diverse mix of local and international families.

German International School Cape Town

Bilingual German and English programmes; ages 6-18; co-ed; day and boarding; Independent: private non-profit

The city-centre bilingual German International School Cape Town (G1-12) offers qualifications for both South African and European universities. English speakers with no German may join in grade 5 only. 

Lycée Francais Du Cap

French National Curriculum/ Brevet/ Bac; ages 3-18; co-ed; 345 students; day; Independent: private non-profit

Bilingual Lycée Francais du Cap, known as The French School, split between two city-centre sites (primary and senior) with external sporting facilities. Popular with expats for northern hemisphere calendar.  

Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard

South African IEB curriculum; ages 1-18; co-ed; day; Independent: privately owned

Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard offers the South African IEB curriculum from age one to eighteen. This compact city-centre school in Greenpoint makes use of local sporting and other facilities.

Reddam House Constantia

IEB (South African) curriculum; ages 1-18; co-ed; day; Independent: privately owned

Serving families in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, Reddam House Constantia’s beautiful campus has fantastic facilities. A top-performing IEB (South African) curriculum school for children 1-18 years old.

For more information on the schools above, please go to each school’s individual entry on the Good Schools Guide international search.

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