Maverick Citizen


Campaign calls for SA to talk about the pupils who dropped out of school

Campaign calls for SA to talk about the pupils who dropped out of school
(Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

There is cause to celebrate the learners who matriculated in spite of the additional obstacles the pandemic threw in their path. However, the whereabouts and welfare of those who dropped out are just as important. And this urgently needs to become a national priority, argues the Zero Dropout Campaign. 

South Africa must do away with the “strong obsession” of equating the matric pass rate with the health of the country’s education system, argued the programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign, Merle Mansfield. 

The debate around this time of year should include reflection on whether or not the schooling system is effective enough to get children from grade 1 to 12 in the allocated amount of time. “What are we doing about it?”, she questioned. 

Mansfield was speaking during the virtual launch on Thursday 25 February of the campaign’s new publication, “School Dropout: The Pandemic Edition Building resilience in our schooling system – before and after Covid-19”. 

She was joined by Mary Metcalfe to discuss the findings of the report. Metcalf is an education expert, senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg and former Gauteng MEC for education. 

At least 40% of all learners drop out of school in South Africa. The Zero Dropout Campaign aims to halve the school dropout rate by 2030 through various interventions.

According to the report, to drop out means to leave the schooling system without obtaining a National Senior Certificate in Grade 12, or equivalent certificates such as the NC or NQF Level 4. 

There is no concrete data yet on how many learners dropped out in 2020, but the report highlights that most schools saw absenteeism rise from the average 2% to between 10% and 25% when they reopened in July 2020. 

In addition, 35% of parents were “very worried” that their children might not return to school. The report finds that some pupils did not return because they feared contracting Covid-19, had to queue for relief grants, had to care for family or felt demotivated by the large chunks of school they missed, says the report.

The Department of Basic Education has expressed its concern about absenteeism during the pandemic and has “sounded alarm bells” of increased dropout in the future. By 9 October 2020, it could not account for about 320,000 pupils.

Metcalfe argues that dropouts need to be made “visible and a public priority”. She adds, “I feel this deeply every time we get the matric results. It’s a celebration of the few.”  

Mansfield adds that: “Dropout has been normalised… there’s a celebration when you reach matric that you ‘survived school’ and that is the mentality within our system and our communities.” She lamented the fact that no other questions are asked.

The role of the campaign is to make people “uncomfortable” about that, she explains. “I think it is incredibly foolish of us to be so narrow in our view of what our education success is.” Other pathways haven’t been created for these learners and they “fall into nothing”, she says.

Dropout “prevents young people from reaching their full potential, reinforcing cycles of poverty and inequality that prevent us from moving forward as a nation”, according to the report.

The report explains that dropout is the culmination of years of disruptions, which detaches learners from their education and creates gaps in basic learning. “Despite what many people may think, young people who drop out of school have often been very committed to their education, and end up leaving after years of struggle,” the report reads.

Zubaidah, a 17-year-old from Mannenberg, told the researchers that: 

“I just felt like I went through a lot and then there came a point where I felt like school isn’t for me. In the area I live in, struggle is a usual thing and especially in my circumstance: I don’t have parents. My father died last year, and my mother when I was 10. I was young. Last year was the worst year ever. I thought perhaps I should rather leave [school] and go work. It’ll be better. Then I can take care of myself. At school, there’s no income and all you get is knowledge. It does pay at the end of the day but there is no guarantee that the schoolwork is going to bring anything. So I thought about dropping out. I was at that point. But then I thought to myself: if I drop out, what is lying ahead for me? There is nothing… If I want to get ahead I have to stay in school; I have to go beyond my boundaries. Dropping out is like asking for your aim not to be reached. And at the end of the day, it will be so much more difficult.”

The report states that learners were already faced with disruptions at school, at home and in their neighbourhoods. The pandemic strained their already tense relationship with school and disengagement is the top precursor to dropout globally, Mansfield points out. 

“So what does a ‘new normal’ mean for South Africa’s schooling system, when the ‘old normal’ was already governed by frequent disruptions to learners?”, asks the report’s authors.

In the home, loss was ever-present – income, food, lives and mental health were lost, found the report. 

In addition, pupils lost more schools days than ever before. Without proper catch-up plans, learning losses could have an impact until 2022, or even 2031. “In 2020, 25% of primary schools did not have water and 21% did not have adequate toilets. More than 1,000 schools could not reopen because they did not have water, infrastructure or sanitation facilities,” the report states. Learners have not only lost time in the classroom, but also an essential source of socialisation, support and nutrition. 

At the neighbourhood level, many communities have seen disrupted access to healthcare services as well as income. 

What is to be done?

Mansfield suggests three solutions.

The first is to establish an early warning system, which is a system that tracks academic performance, behaviour and absenteeism. “Just tracking these three things through an integrated risk profiling report allows us to immediately flag when a learner starts showing risk symptoms or disengagement,” she explains. Right now, there is no dataset that could track the schooling career of a specific learner.

Better psychosocial support is needed. Teachers cannot be social workers and psychologists too and community members can also play a role in mentoring pupils. 

The referral system for support and care within schools is also weak, she says. Learners often wait for years before they get help because the system is overburdened. A solution is to create networks of peer support and mentors for caregivers. These can also keep pupils in touch with the school community when learning from home. 

At the end of the day, young people need one thing, says Mansfield: “Someone who has their back”. MC/DM.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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