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Accessing Quality Education in Gauteng: Intersecting Scales of Geography, Educational Policy and Inequality


In May 2016, the South African Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional the long-term use of default school feeder zones (with a 5 km radius) to govern school admissions in Gauteng province. The ruling drew on an amicus curiae application which argued that the default feeder zones were constitutionally invalid: in the context of a profoundly unequal education system where geography and educational quality are tightly linked, they replicate spatial apartheid and perpetuate racial exclusion. The case highlights the tension between individual schools’ incentives to preserve educational quality through limiting and controlling admissions, and the Gauteng Department of Education’s mandate to ensure universal, equitable access to education for all. The competing incentives of government, schools and parents mean that multiple scales of educational governance intersect at individual schools, and in school admissions policies. As one of the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure universal access to high-quality education, these tensions between scales of educational governance are under increasing scrutiny globally. This paper explores the distinctions and relationship between access to education and access to quality education through the case study of Gauteng, South Africa. We map a range of school-level variables to illustrate the challenges that geography poses to achieving equitable educational access and unpack how, in the context of policy that intends to univeralise access to education, physical location (of schools and children) and scale continue to shape the education that children can access.

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Data Availability

Gauteng School Master List, available online at GDE Situational Analysis survey data (2003, 2016). Data available on request from Gauteng Department of Education.

Code Availability.

The analysis was not based on a custom code. The analysis was done with Microsoft Excel and ESRI ArcGIS software.


  1. The South African Department of Education uses the term learners to refer to children attending school.

  2. The Court required the GDE to determine feeder zones for public schools within 12 months. In May 2017, the GDE was given an extension until June 2018 to complete this process. After a participatory process, the draft amendments to the Regulations on school admissions were released for public comment in August 2018. By November 2018, the GDE had determined feeder zones for 2067 ordinary public schools, although they remain primarily geographic.

  3. Recent data from the Gauteng city-region supports this connection. Approximately 74% of the top 1% of residents in Gauteng in terms of income have a higher education qualification in comparison to only 20% of the other 99% of income earners (Götz et al. 2017).

  4. SASA provides that indigent parents or those with limited income can apply for school fee reduction based on demonstrated need, enabling poorer students to attend fee-paying schools.

  5. Refers to the high-school completion certificate that a learner obtains at the end of grade 12, also known as the matric pass rate. NSC pass levels are widely used as a proxy for school performance, despite the limitations of this measure.

  6. Racial diversity is measured through the entropy score per school. The entropy score increases if learners attending the school are from a greater mix of different population groups and decreases when learners from one population group dominate the school population (Parry and van Eeden 2015).

  7. The categories are 0–5 km, 6–10 km, 11–15 km, 16–20 km, 20–25 km and over 25 km.


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Correspondence to Alexandra Parker.

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Parker, A., Hamann, C. & de Kadt, J. Accessing Quality Education in Gauteng: Intersecting Scales of Geography, Educational Policy and Inequality. Urban Forum 32, 141–163 (2021).

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