HUMAN RIGHTS FESTIVAL
South Africa needs a national education strategy to tackle the school dropout crisis
School dropout rates have an impact on students, their families and communities, and on society as a whole. While everyone in South Africa is impacted by the phenomenon, everyone has the potential to be part of the solution. Education experts explored the strategies that can be employed to protect learners’ constitutionally guaranteed right to education at a panel discussion at the Constitution Hill Human Rights Festival on Saturday, 19 March.
Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa was facing a crisis in the form of school dropout, with around four out of 10 learners who started school in grade one dropping out before reaching matric. The phenomenon has become normalised in many communities, the shrinking of classes between grades 8 and 12 an accepted reality.
This, said Rahima Essop, head of communications and advocacy for the Zero Dropout Campaign, is why it is important to make those learners who are disappearing from the schooling system visible. There is a need for discourse around the impact of dropout rates, not only on the student, their family and community, but on society as a whole.
“[Zero Dropout Campaign wants] to change perceptions about causes of learning dropout, so that we can collectively focus our attention on preempting and preventing dropout,” said Essop. “We can do that by instituting what we call early warning systems, and also by strengthening our psychosocial support interventions at schools.”
Essop was speaking at a panel on education, titled “Back to School: A challenging reality to vulnerable South Africans”, at the Constitution Hill Human Rights Festival on Saturday, 19 March. The discussion brought together members of civil society in exploring the strategies and solutions that can be employed to ensure protections of learners’ constitutionally guaranteed right to education.
Other speakers on the panel included Dr Andile Dube, education specialist for the United Nations Children’s Fund; Atilla Dag, co-founder and director general of the Universal Rights Association; Kgomotso Kgasi, head of Equal Education in Gauteng; Dr Nedson Pophiwa, senior lecturer at Wits School of Governance; Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, founder and CEO of Play Africa; and Dr Kagiso ‘TK’ Pooe, senior lecturer focusing on public policy themes at Wits School of Governance.
Dropout should be approached from a place of empathy and understanding, rather than a culture of blaming and shaming affected learners, said Essop.
“Dropout doesn’t happen overnight. It follows a long process of disengagement in which a learner is pushed or pulled away from school because of factors at home, at school or in their communities,” she explained.
In 2021, Essop, along with a number of education researchers and activist groups, wrote a letter to the Department of Basic Education calling for a national coordinated dropout prevention plan. This was after seeing the harmful impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the learning losses affecting learners – particularly those in lower quintile schools.
The Wave 5 National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, issued on 8 July 2021, gave “conservative assumptions” that 650,000 to 750,000 children aged 7 to 17 years old were not attending school by May of that year. Compared to “normal” times, this showed that the number of absent learners had increased by about 400,000 to 500,ooo, and attendance rates had declined from 98% to between 93.4 and 94.2%.
During the webinar, Dube spoke on how the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted inequalities within the education system, with quintile one, two and three learners struggling to access learning from home, while quintile four and five learners were able to maintain their education through alternative methods such as online platforms, tutors or supportive structures within the home.
For the majority of lower income children, a quality education is the only way for them to break out of the cycle of poverty, said Dube.
“We… know that performance and quality are not going to be attained unless we have environments [that are] conducive. By conducive, we mean infrastructure, we mean care and support, we mean mental health, receiving good nutrition, we mean being protected, we mean safety in the schooling system,” she continued.
Improving school culture
Improving school culture is a large part of preventing dropout. There is a need to create welcoming, stimulating and safe environments for all learners, where they feel they can be curious, said Essop.
“The ideal school space is one where learners have access to not only meals, but also psychosocial support, as well as sexual and reproductive health services. Ideal spaces are free from bullies and physical violence,” she explained.
Some learners come from homes where they are exposed to neglect or abuse. In these instances, similar treatment in schools – either through formal action or bullying – can trigger them. This creates a school culture in which learners, and particularly boys, anticipate harm and feel physically unsafe at school, said Essop.
The “right type” of data collection about learners can be instrumental in triggering appropriate support systems to prevent dropout. “That’s what we mean when we talk about early warning systems, and we build these early warning systems in schools, but we also need to capacitate schools in having [these] systems that can… alert educators that a learner is struggling, academically or emotionally.”
Kgasi pointed out that there is also a need to provide the “basics” in many schools, such as textbooks and infrastructure. With most schools severely under-resourced, and most learners attending low fee-paying schools, there is an inherent dependence on government for the quality of education.
“I do think that government needs to come to the party… to try and bridge that gap,” said Kgasi.
However, communities should also play a role in supporting the education system, according to Pooe. Where school-age children are on the street during school hours, community members should take a proactive approach in questioning why they are not in class. This, he argued, is not something the education department can address.
“Dropout impacts everyone and everyone can be part of the solution,” said Essop. “There are practical things that we all [can] do every day, and there are things that need to happen at the national level.”
Among the suggestions Essop made for instituting such everyday practical measures were having suggestion boxes at schools – thus encouraging learners to be active participants in their education – and inviting parents to volunteer at schools in a way that fosters engagement.
Data collection for change
In order to create change within the education system, there needs to be a systemic way of monitoring and evaluating that change, said Pophiwa. Through the collection of data, resources can be used more efficiently and time can be saved on those campaigns that do not suit particular contexts.
Pophiwa made the example of communities in which there is a high rate of school non-attendance among girls, due to fathers who do not believe it is important for girls to matriculate. Under these circumstances, introducing buses to transport children to school is not going to improve the attendance rate among girls, as they will not board the buses due to their fathers’ beliefs.
Establishing the demographics of students is vital, confirmed Pooe. If there is no understanding of what a certain population looks like and what “makes them tick”, no amount of resources provided is going to help them, he said.
“It’s about [the national and provincial education departments] listening to the learners and not just implementing plans that… the experts say, ‘This is going to work,’” said Kgasi, in response to Maverick Citizen’s question on how to create multilevel educational reform. “So, it’s about talking to the learners and hearing what they have to say, what they want to see first.”
Through Equal Education’s engagements with learners in communities, Kgasi has found that young people are eager to learn about democratic processes and their rights. She describes them as “energised” and “excited”, seeking ways to create change themselves.
“It’s beautiful, the kids want this education, they’re hungry for this education,” she said.
“For me, it’s also quite sad that they have to be in this position where they have to fight for a thing that is provided for in the Constitution, as an immediately realisable right. That the urgency isn’t felt in the same ways by the structures that are responsible for this part of [the] work.” MC