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Early intervention is key in addressing SA’s school dropout problem, say experts

Early intervention is key in addressing SA’s school dropout problem, say experts
The early warning signs of dropout – such as poor academic performance, behavioural problems and chronic absenteeism – tend to appear at a young age. (Photo: iStock)

An estimated four out of 10 Grade 1 pupils in South Africa drop out of school before reaching matric. For those organisations and individuals working on the frontline of dropout prevention, early intervention is key.

The early warning signs of dropping out of school – such as poor academic performance, behavioural problems and chronic absenteeism – tend to appear at a young age. Intervention strategies to address these issues should be implemented as early in a child’s development as possible. 

The benefits that children get from learning support and one-on-one engagements are often greater for those in early grades than those who are older, according to Linda Zietsman, a programme coordinator and occupational therapist at the Khula Development Group

“The hope is that once they are older, they don’t need that interventional support anymore because that has already been given to them,” she explained. 

The Khula Development Group is a nonprofit working with vulnerable communities in Stellenbosch and Paarl, Western Cape, to assist primary school children who are at high risk of dropping out of the school system. 

In a 2022 “School Dropout” report issued by the nonprofit the Zero Dropout Campaign, it was stated that four out of 10 Grade 1 learners in SA dropped out of school before reaching matric.  

Elijah Mhlanga, the spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, told Maverick Citizen that in recent years, about 60% of learners completed their National Senior Certificate (NSC) or equivalent. He noted that some of the learners who dropped out went to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges – their disappearance from schools didn’t necessarily mean they stopped learning. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘We have prioritised quantity over quality’ — politicians react to matric results 

“The retention rate is increasing and last year’s increased number of NSC candidates is one indicator of the resilience of the young people who stay in the system until they complete Grade 12,” Mhlanga said. 

However, there are still areas where the school dropout rate appears to be higher now than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Paul Cromhout, the CEO of the Small Projects Foundation in the Eastern Cape, said the organisation had seen the dropout rate double — from about 15% to 30% of children per year — since the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. 

“That’s not uniform across all schools,” he said. “We’re working… in Buffalo City, in Amathole District [Municipality], and also in some areas of Chris Hani [District Municipality], especially Molteno and Sterkstroom. We’ve been working quite hard to actually start addressing this.” 

The Small Projects Foundation assisted in the launch of a provincial “zero learner dropout campaign” in late 2020, according to Cromhout. 

What are the risk factors for dropping out? 

There are a number of factors that can put a child at risk of dropping out. In the case of Liam* — one of the children supported by the Khula Development Group — he was referred to the organisation because of a high level of absenteeism. He was absent from school for 40 days in 2022. 

Liam’s caregiver,  Rhonda*, told Maverick Citizen she took Liam in when he was nine months old and his parents had died. While still a baby, Liam contracted HIV from his birth mother, who struggled with drug addiction.

What we don’t want is that we give all this intervention and support, and the moment we’re not there, then everything falls flat.

“Every time Liam’s medication changes, he backslides [and] stays at the house,” said Rhonda. “That’s the reason why Liam is going to be at home a lot of the time.” Liam’s condition can also make him more vulnerable to other illnesses. 

The learning support at the Khula Development Group gave Liam a place to talk, said Rhonda, and increased his eagerness to attend school. 

Chronic absenteeism was one of the “ABCs” of dropout risk factors, said Zietsman, alongside academic performance and behavioural problems. She emphasised that there was always a reason for a child’s behaviour. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: In the wake of the pandemic, a proposed new law to reduce school dropout is still falling short 

“We might see a lot of aggression, a lot of frustration, outbursts, but we also might see children tightly withdrawing, and we just [have] to know that’s only a consequence of something that’s happening at home,” she explained. 

“We see a lot of the factors that pull the child out of… the school are poor social circumstances… when primary caregivers are not involved, when the primary caregivers are abusing, or the child has experienced abuse or trauma.” 

Children can also be “pushed” out of school by factors such as teacher attitude, quality of classroom facilities or bullying, she said. 

Most of the children who received support at Khula Development Group had not attended early childhood development (ECD) centres, continued Zietsman, adding that this could be attributed to the fact that those caregivers who cared enough to pay ECD fees also tended to care about the support a child needed when going to school. 

“Usually, what we see is that the children that we work with haven’t gone to ECD, and then obviously if a child has been doing ECD, the chances of them being school-ready once they enter the school system are a lot higher,” she said. 

What role does poverty play? 

Many caregivers in low-income households are unable to pay for school uniforms, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Cromhout. 

“In our work in Molteno and Sterkstroom, we’re working with 10 schools there. We found… 111 children who were not at school due to the fact that they didn’t have the money from their households to buy a uniform. The kind of stigma and bullying and shame if you haven’t got the uniform is of such a nature that it’s basically impossible for the child to survive psychologically and emotionally without the uniform,” he explained. 

The Small Projects Foundation is attempting to address the issue with a programme that issues Pep vouchers to children in need of uniforms. The cost came to about R550 per child, said Cromhout, adding that this was “almost nothing in terms of at least giving the child a prospect of a future. 

“[Another issue] is absolute hunger at home and lack of support for members of a family who are ill or unable to look after the children. We found, for example… that up to 40% of households are headed by single women [in the Eastern Cape],” he said. 

“The other factor is that up to 660,000 children in the Eastern Cape are classified as orphans and vulnerable children and youth, which means often there’s only one person who’s supporting the family.” 

Cromhout cited one case in which a grandmother was supporting a household of 16 children. The mother of the children had gone missing with the child grants, meaning the only financial support for the family was the grandmother’s pension. 

Four of the 16 children were in school and had to drop out because of a lack of uniforms. The Small Projects Foundation assisted with access to uniforms, as well as arranging the transfer of the child grants from the absent mother to the grandmother, said Cromhout. 

What does effective intervention look like? 

Where possible, effective intervention to prevent dropping out from school involves working with a child’s primary caregiver, said Zietsman. For this reason, Khula Development Group includes weekly home visits in their support system for children. 

“What we don’t want is that we give all this intervention and support, and the moment we’re not there, then everything falls flat,” explained Zietsman. She added that the single most important factor in ensuring a child was resilient was one stable relationship with an adult. 

“We also need to remember the parents that we work with also have a lot of hurt themselves, so they need to heal themselves before they can support someone else to heal,” she said. DM/MC

* Liam and Rhonda are pseudonyms ascribed to sources who chose to remain anonymous to maintain their privacy.

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