Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 15 January 2014

Youth at risk: not just somebody else’s problem, Minister

If around 50% of learners drop out of school, and a further 22% fail, can we really believe that the education system is catering for the majority of this country? According to researcher Nic Spaull: for every 100 learners that started grade 1 in 2002, only 51 made it to grade 12 in 2013, 40 of them passed and 16 qualified to go to university. Of those who go to university, only 2 of them will graduate. By what defined parameters would this be considered a success? More importantly, what do we know about the learners we are losing? How can they be helped?

On the Tuesday morning that the matric results were released, I had a civil on-air disagreement with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga over whether the 78.2% pass rate meant anything. I maintained that we could not celebrate a system that lost roughly 50% of each cohort to start grade one in our public schools. She maintained that the dropout rate should not be discussed alongside the matric pass rate. It was unfair, said the minister, because so many other things contributed to the dropout rate. That is both perfectly true and perfectly disingenuous.

These are a few reasons that the minister cited:

  • disengaged parents
  • disengaged youth
  • youth criminality
  • youth drug abuse.

I would like to add a few more to this mix:

  • low socioeconomic status
  • living in a single-adult or child-headed home
  • changing schools at non-traditional times
  • being held back in school
  • having older siblings who dropped out
  • negative peer pressure
  • having a physical disability
  • having a learning disability
  • speaking a different home language.

What the minister and I have fleshed out are a number of factors that make up the description for something called ‘At-Risk Youth,’ the definition used for learners who are statistically more probably to fail academically and/or drop out of school. Where the minister and I differ, is that I think that the education system should be catering for these young people.

We can look at this in two ways. In the first scenario, the majority of dropouts are not at-risk youth and so are dropping out simply because the education system is poor – in this scenario the education system is definitely at fault. In the second scenario, which is the subject of this article, the majority of dropouts are at-risk youth. In this scenario you have an education system that has chosen not to create a retention strategy for 50% of its learners. Either way, the dropout rate is a problem to be laid at the door of the Department of Basic Education. I don’t expect the education system to accept sole responsibility for all the risks our youth face. But seeing that the Minister obviously knows what those risks are, I expect her to adjust the system to try to circumvent them where possible.

So, what is the status quo for South African at-risk youth? Let’s look first at socio-economic factors, like parents who encourage academically weaker children or girl children to drop out, the lure of possible work, gangs and drug use. In those cases, some children are lucky to attend a school in an area where the school itself or supporting factors like youth organisations and churches attempt to reach out to children of their own volition. These situations are few and far between, and most civil society organisations and schools can barely keep their heads above water. Any interventions made are done so by well-meaning but usually untrained individuals who often lack the ability to sustain their support of problem children for all the years required to get them to matric. Even in the best scenario, the emphasis is very much on keeping learners in school. It does very little to get previous dropouts to return to school.

Then there are the learning issues that stem from schools themselves. If your child’s school does not have a taxi or a special bus, and she is a physically disabled learner, how does she get there? How does she navigate at school, especially considering how likely she is to be assaulted by her peers or teachers? What if your child has an attention problem or a learning disability like dyslexia? Are teachers likely to pick it up and, even if they do, are they trained to assist your child? In a system which has many teaching posts unfilled and staggering rates of teacher absenteeism, can teachers spare the considerable time it would take to assist such learners?

Last in the status quo considerations are the conspiracy theories. On the subject of culling to improving the pass rate, education expert Professor Jan Heystek notes that “schools also do not want a poor pass rate, so pupils who did not pass Grade 12 are not welcome back. If they do stay on, it will make the minister and the provincial department’s statistics look bad.” Heystek also notes that district managers had the final say on the promotion of candidates and guided principals to be a lot stricter with the pass requirements in Grades 10 and 11, leading to higher dropout rates in those years. The last level of conspiracy theory is that having a large youth contingent dependent on government support will serve the ANC well for future votes. Current data shows that the higher the level of education, the less likely a person is to vote ANC.

Considering this status quo, what sort of change would be ideal?

The first thing is data: dropouts are so widespread that the push and pull factors differ from rural to urban area, in different earning brackets, family situations and for different genders. There is a fair amount of data indicating who is likely to drop out, but we do not have enough data that indicates why.

Once we know why, school-based intervention programs can be designed. These would have to differ based on the most prevalent risks and on how many learners are affected. For example, planning a safety net system for a school where the majority of children would qualify for socio-economic risks would be very different than the remedial program designed to assist learners with learning disabilities.

The designed intervention systems would have to target two groups: at-risk youth who have already dropped out and at-risk youth who have yet to drop out. Several other countries have created and continue to improve similar programs, suited to their particular risk factors. Based on the wealth of existing information, government could run pilot programmes until they know what works best. Those programmes can be rolled out in the areas that correspond with the prevalent risk factors. It will not be an easy process, but it is the right thing to do. DM

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