South Africa


The high drop-out rate, not the matric pass rate, should be a national obsession

The high drop-out rate, not the matric pass rate, should be a national obsession
Learners from Khayelitsha high schools gather for an Equal Education programme, 17 April 2019. (Photo: Rebecca Davis)

When I started high school on the Cape Flats, I was one of about 300 learners in that school, divided into eight Grade 8 classes. By the time we wrote matric five years later, there were only 56 learners left in a single class. Nearly all of us passed that year and celebrated – we had made it, and gave little thought to the fact that four out of five of our fellow Grade 8s had not.

It’s been almost 20 years since I wrote matric, yet the alarming rate at which learners disappear from the education system persists. The annual national matric pass rate has improved year-on-year, with the Minister of Education even joking this month that she was ready to retire after the increase from 78.2% in 2018 to 81.3% in 2019. But we must understand that, before the rewrites that are still to happen, 58% of the 2008 Grade 1s did not manage to write and pass their matric exam 12 years on. In essence, we have failed to translate educational access to educational success for most learners in South Africa.

My memories of high school are rife with the typical barriers that far too many schools and learners face in the country, like overcrowded classrooms and dual language subject teaching. I recall community violence leading to early school closures and constant news of learners caught in gun crossfire on their way to or from school. I myself had to dodge bullets early one morning en route to write a Grade 8 Maths test.

I remember one of my fellow learners who witnessed a murder one weekend while sitting in the doorway of her home. She suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but could only access four free counselling sessions. She struggled with loud noises and overcrowded spaces, both of which were a daily reality in our school. She started to smoke dagga to manage her symptoms, and a year after the trauma she dropped out of school. I remember a boy whose father took drugs and turned him into a daily punching bag. He often skipped school when his bruises were visible. Another school pupil stayed home when her mom got part-time work so she could take care of her grandmother who had cancer.

These are just a few examples of the daily realities that learners must overcome if they are to make it to school, let alone remain till matric. There are many complex and interrelated reasons why children drop out of school. Typically, they are often a combination of individual, family, community and school-related factors that build up over time. Tackling the underlying causes of dropping out of school – poverty and inequality – will require massive political commitment and policy change, but this will take time. Fortunately, there are things we can, and should, be doing now to keep learners in school.

As a start, we need to think differently about the matric pass rate. We need to shift our focus from viewing passing Grade 12 as the only means to evaluate the success of our education system (and our learners), and concentrate too on those who might or do fall through the cracks. If schools focused less on the matric pass rate and more on halting dropping out, it would mean that struggling learners could be supported to catch up to where they need to be and have greater odds of making it through school.

The reality is the 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning, in English or their home language and, left unchecked, learning gaps such as this can become so large it becomes impossible to catch up. In the effort to protect their pass rates, however, schools often hold learners back or, in keeping with the government’s Progression Policy, move them up a grade even if they don’t meet the academic standards required to pass.

The Constitution says every child has the right to an education – getting into school, staying in school and finishing school. Yet, despite the scale of dropout, there is no national task team in place to address this issue. It is within this gap that the DG Murray Trust’s Zero Dropout Campaign is working together with non-government organisations in the education sector, to halve the rate of school dropout by 2030. This demands a co-ordinated response, beginning with the accurate tracking of learner-level data across their journey through school. In particular, tracking each learner’s ABCs – academic achievement, behaviour, and chronic absenteeism – would allow us to effectively monitor signs of disengagement; monitored effectively, these indicators serve as an early warning system, helping us to understand the risk level of each learner so we know who requires intervention to prevent dropout – before it’s too late.

As we enter a new decade, it’s time we move on beyond our obsession with national pass rates and confront the real elephant in the room – after all, dropping out doesn’t just affect individual learners, it threatens our social and economic potential as a country. As educationist Prof John Volmink says: “Every time a learner drops out of school, it impacts the fabric of our society. Yet another citizen will find it more difficult to participate meaningfully in the choices that affect their lives, to be a self-managing person, or to participate fully in the economy… This is not just about supporting learners to finish school, it is about nation building. It is about ensuring a just, truly transformed and admirable society”. DM

* For more about the Zero Dropout Campaign and its flagship publication, ‘School dropout. What’s the catch?’, visit:

DG Murray Trust (DGMT) is a Cape Town-based private foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential.

Mansfield is the Programme Director for the Zero Dropout Campaign. Horwitz is a freelance journalist focusing on social development issues.


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