Maverick Citizen


School ‘dropouts’ are not so much failures as victims of a hostile and skewed system

School ‘dropouts’ are not so much failures as victims of a hostile and skewed system
Lubelo Secondary School in Kwazulu-Natal. For pupils, culturally excluded and labelled as lazy, ignorant or academically deficient, the messages are either internalised or they become the source of frustration and anger. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Thuli Dlamini)

Our understanding of ‘dropout’ is infused with deficit approaches that lay the blame on school leaders, teachers and even pupils. But they fail to consider the conditions and contexts in which schooling takes place.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – so goes the playground rhyme. Yet nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to problem definition and “taking action”. On the contrary, words build worlds. How we “frame” problems has direct and sometimes dire consequences for how we think about suitable “solutions”. Problems don’t float free. They aren’t waiting out there to be discovered. We construct and define them, and so they aren’t free from the influence of power imbalances in society.

Following the announcement of the matric results, there is still much emphasis on the problem of the high school “dropout”. However, much of the discussion around this seems to exclude an analysis of the framing of the problem itself. In this context, it seems necessary to ask what is imagined when people talk about a dropout. To inquire whether the term remains the most appropriate one to describe the situation. And to consider the potential of a different set of terms which invoke alternative understandings of the problem, and which may elicit a different set of responses.

To do this isn’t to ignore the reality that pupils are leaving the system, but to reconsider our assumptions about why they are leaving and where they are going.

A term infused with deficit approaches

The way that “dropout” is mostly understood tends to be infused with deficit approaches that lay the blame on school leaders, teachers and even the pupils themselves. What these approaches have in common is that they neglect to consider the conditions and contexts in which schooling takes place, and the macro-level factors that influence the ability of schools to function well. Little to no attention is given to the way in which pupils are culturally excluded at schools; to the manner in which they are shut out from decision-making on matters that affect them; or to the reality that the majority of schools are severely underresourced because funding depends on parental top-ups through fees.

With these common neglects, arguments about dropouts are typically developed along three lines: technicist arguments, managerialist arguments and meritocratic arguments.


The technicist arguments begin with the premise that the reason for pupil underperformance is the inability of teachers to do their job well (to teach). Either they lack the necessary training and skills, or they lack motivation and commitment to their work. Following from this assumption, solutions include extensive teacher “upskilling” workshops ranging from professional development in a subject specialisation to “how to” lessons on managing a classroom better.

Most pertinently, the emphasis within this approach is on the teachers themselves and on the individual agency of the teacher, with little regard for the (often constraining) contexts in which the teacher’s work occurs. When pupils fail, teachers are to blame.


Much like the technicist arguments, managerialist arguments focus on the inability and incompetence of actors in the system, only in this view the focus is on school leaders and school management. An underperforming school is characterised as a dysfunctional school and the dysfunction is claimed to be the result of weak leadership and management.

A good principal, in this view, ought to be able to pull not only their staff together but also the school itself. Solutions focus on the development of school leaders, sometimes with the principal as an instructional leader (in teaching and learning) and at other times (mostly) as an organisational leader and manager. Principals are paired with business leaders as mentors and sent off to business school to be trained in management science.

When the solutions are unsuccessful, the school leaders themselves are identified as the weak links in the system – perhaps they do not have what it takes to lead effectively. All the while, of course, little attention is paid to the reality of the situations in which leaders must do the leading.


In the meritocratic approach results and performances are taken at face value, produced solely by the effort and ability of pupils. An underperforming pupil is either lazy (perhaps one who “doesn’t care about education”) or lacks the intellectual ability to excel academically. Solutions involve attempts to “raise the aspirations” of working-class pupils, to provide academic support (without questioning why they aren’t learning at school in the first place) and to work on the “mindsets” of pupils, while ignoring all the factors that bear upon their lives and all the factors that place their schools in unfavourable positions.

Effects and consequences

Karl Marx’s observation about the ways in which workers are alienated from their work which has become meaningless, mechanical and unable to fulfil the human yearning to express creative potential, seems quite fitting to describe the effects of these deficit messages which are transmitted both within and about schools:

“He does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore, only feels himself outside of work, and in his work feels outside of himself. He feels at home when he is not working and when he is working, he does not feel at home.”

The effects of these deficit approaches, which also underpin the ways in which many people still think about dropouts, are quite obvious. When teachers and school leaders are constantly blamed and labelled as incompetent for realities that are mostly beyond their control, morale is broken down and the very actors who are keeping the underresourced schooling system afloat become alienated from their work.

For pupils, culturally excluded and labelled as lazy, ignorant or academically deficient, the messages are either internalised or they become the source of frustration and anger. In this situation, perhaps the most rational response is to exit the school system – why return every day to a situation in which one is repeatedly humiliated?

“Dropout,” infused with these meanings that have such dire consequences, therefore seems to be a somewhat slippery, if not inappropriate, term to describe the situation we are trying to understand and fix. Perhaps some new words can offer us new insights and new possibilities for action.

Hostile architecture

Hostile architecture is a term that has gained traction to describe the planned ways in which built environments are used to restrict movement: bolts on steps, anti-homeless spikes or studs, the use of water sprinklers to deter people, sloped sills to prevent sitting, and fencing under bridges, etc. It is often used to keep homeless people from sitting or sleeping in public spaces. Most importantly, hostile architecture indicates deliberate planning and design.

What if there are some parallels to be drawn between hostile architecture in urban spaces and the policy architecture of our schooling system?

Our policy architecture in education has produced a situation in which access to adequate schooling is made dependent on the financial ability of parents, and an education system which is almost wholly stratified by class (and race). For a child who is black and poor (the majority of children in South Africa), the chances of accessing a school that is adequately equipped, that has sufficient teachers and classrooms and has the equipment and resources to enable quality education, are slim. In other words, we have a serious problem concerning the distribution of resources between schools, as well as not having sufficient funds in the government purse for education to redistribute.

In addition, most South African children are required to leave their cultural resources at the school gate because they are not valued within the context of school. The curriculum still manages to exclude and undervalue the lived experiences of most pupils. Language policies still require pupils to mostly stop talking in their mother tongue and disciplinary measures may even lead to some being penalised in the classroom when they talk in their home language. Pupils often have very little input into the policies and practices that define their lives at school. In other words, we have a severe problem of institutional and cultural exclusion.

Constructive dismissals

Constructive dismissal is when an employee resigns not because they want to but because the employer has created an intolerable situation, so the employee has no other option. What if we considered the mass exit of pupils from the schooling system as constructive dismissal? To do so would require us to consider whether the situation in which many are being schooled is an untenable situation, in which the schooling conditions (rather than working conditions) make leaving school the only option.

It is quite possible, if we reflect only for a short while on what takes place in schools (from the leaky roofs and broken windows, to the cultural exclusion, the labelling and even the possibility of death by pit latrine), to make a case for constructive dismissal, or a case that those who choose to leave may in fact be protecting themselves from the physical and symbolic violence that takes place in schools.

Might the term hostile architecture, which focuses on policy, planning and design, be more appropriate than the generic “dropout”, which neglects a structural analysis and a recognition of the power relations at work in schools? Perhaps the term constructive dismissal, which shifts the focus to what actually takes place in schools, is more appropriate than the continued use of “dropout”, which obfuscates the situation and neglects to consider the conditions in which schooling takes place.

At the very least, both terms require us to make the system (structures, policies and institutionalised practices) our unit of analysis, rather than to focus on the supposed shortcomings of individuals. I don’t offer these as “the words” to use, or the only ways to frame the problem, but hope rather that we would all have the humility to think deeply about the implications of the words we choose and how we frame complex problems.

Words carry power, they cut deep and they can be destructive, while even managing to conceal the root causes of our troubles. DM

Ashley Visagie is a Canon Collins scholar studying for his PhD in education at the University of Cape Town. He is a co-founder of Bottomup, an organisation that promotes critical thinking and social justice among high school pupils, and a member of Thinking Space, a radical scholarship collective.


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