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Opinionista

After-hours programmes could be the cure for SA’s matric woes

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Somila Mjekula is a communications and advocacy officer for The Learning Trust, an organisation that provides conduit funding and support to NGOs running After School learner programmes across the country. She has volunteered and worked in the NGO/NPO sector for more than six years.

The advancement of South Africa’s basic education system is crippled by the increasing number of learner repetition and drop-out rates year-on-year. The thousands of active, community-based organisations working in the non-profit education sector may be our only hope of progress. 

While we continue to analyse the recent matric results to assess how far the education department has come in the past year to improve its outcomes, let us not forget all the learners who are held back or those who dropped out of the academic race because the system was rigged against them.

Currently, South Africa’s top 200 (3%) of high schools (former whites-only schools) outperform the remaining 6,476 (97%) (Spaull, 2019). For this reason, it is curious that the 2018 matric pass rate was reported to be 78.2% by the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Even more curious is how the figure was contested by the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters who said it was at 37.6% and 41%, respectively. 

Similar questions were raised over the reported 81.3% pass rate in 2019. These contradictions result from questionable calculations — both by the department and opposition parties — but largely illustrate how repetition and drop-out rates impact on the accurate measurement of education outcomes. As such, we cannot continue to obsess over matric pass rate statistics each year without starting to address the bigger issues as a matter of national concern.

The reality is that most schools in South Africa (more than 90%) that experience the highest number of repetition and drop-outs are quintile 1-3. For various known reasons, these schools often fail to provide quality schooling environments conducive to learning and enriching learner potential. The non-profit/NGO sector has been filling in the gap with After School Programmes (ASPs) where the current education system falls short. This intentional support often comes from the recognition that former whites-only schools (quintile 4-5), continue to access better-quality education and after-school enrichment, on top of the social capital and networks that most schools, largely black and coloured in population, do not. This injustice becomes another poverty trap, maintaining the disparity between income groups.

The after-school sector works to achieve a range of objectives for learners in these under-resourced schools. Local organisations such as IkamvaYouth and Olico, running ASPs that focus on academic support, have done comparative assessments between matric learners attending their ASPs with the average matric results from quintiles 1-3, revealing major differences in favour of ASP interventions. That is, the learners that had attended the ASPs outperformed those that did not receive such interventions by large margins.

Beyond improved academic results, other organisations across the country such as Beautiful Gate, Masifunde Learner Development, Waves for Change, and United Through Sport provide more than 50,000 learners access to programmes that improve health and psychosocial well-being, further contributing to increased life stability.

Most importantly, the significant yet underestimated impact of these various ASPs is their capacity to reduce school absenteeism and drop-out rates. This is no small task, considering that “for every 100 learners who start Grade 1 together, about 40 drop out of the school system before reaching Grade 12”. To take it further, a working paper from Van der Berg et al, “The cost of repetition in South Africa” (2019) reveals how grade repetition cost the system at least R20-billion, with school drop-out costing further billions.

Sadly, we rarely hear any of these figures being widely published, discussed or deconstructed during the matric results or Budget Speech season. Yet they reveal how, for every 12,000 learners who pass matric rather than dropping out in grade 10, the additional lifetime earnings is about R20-billion.

If ASPs are contributing to learners staying in school long enough to complete matric, then surely we need to consider the resources required to sustain and scale the After School sector into quintile 1-3 schools? The costs may be high, but it’s a small price to pay, considering the return on investment in the long term. 

Advocating for resource investment into our underfunded After School sector is not only necessary to improve education outcomes, but also calls us to transform the way we think about education, beyond the seasonal topic of matric pass rates. All learners have the right to an enriching education, yet without ASPs, learners in under-resourced schools will continue to have a very underwhelming educational experience and encounter a lifetime of socioeconomic injustice, compared with those attending quintile 4-5 schools. 

If we are to truly realise any of our country’s transformation goals in education, we need to start by paying attention to, and advocating for, the significant work of the After School sector. DM

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