Reform needed to tackle school dropout rate
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At the start of each year, images of young learners dominate the front pages of our newspapers and take over our social media feeds.
We wait with enthusiasm to see small faces with big smiles sporting their school uniforms; families proudly crowded around classrooms to see where their little ones take their first seat.
But this is not the full picture of schooling in South Africa – a country where 57% of the population aged 20 and older are without a basic education qualification.
In 2015, 15% of learners repeated Grade 1. By Grades 10-12, more than half of learners (52%) in Grades 10-12 will have repeated at least one grade - a figure of significant concern given that grade repetition is one of the strongest predictors of school dropout.
These obligatory first-day-of-school photos belie the harsh realities in homes, communities and schools across the country that make getting through each day at school, let alone completing all 12 grades successfully, a daily challenge for many learners.
Research suggests that disengagement from school is not a single or instantaneous event but rather the culmination of multiple factors that build up over time – until a learner eventually drops out altogether.
Some of these may be pull-out factors, such as gangsterism, substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, household chores, and/or peer pressure.
Then there are “push-out” factors - influences internal to a school, such as the quality of school infrastructure, teacher attitudes and practices, as well as school policies and culture that can push a learner away from learning.
Yes, our education system needs structural reform to tackle these factors effectively, but that will take time - time our current learners cannot afford to lose.
That is why the Zero School Dropout Initiative is working with partners to implement simple yet practical steps now to support learners who miss school often, struggle academically or present with psychosocial concerns - all factors that put them at risk of disengagement, and eventual dropout from school.
I was reminded of the importance of this work when I met a learner at Mzamowhetu Combined High School in East London some weeks ago. Mxolisi (not his real name) explained how having a mentor check on him daily made him feel loved and supported, like someone believed he could do well in school.
Currently in Grade 12, Mxolisi is one of 30 learners in the school who were identified as at risk of dropping out and reintegrated through the work of the Masibumbane Development Organisation’s “Check and Connect” programme.
Similarly, the Khula Development Group in Paarl is working to enhance parental involvement through home visits and parenting groups.
Their “dropout catchers” – who work within this programme and are residents of the surrounding community – physically knock on the doors of homes where learners have been missing school to keep caregivers accountable.
BottomUp in Lotus River works with learners directly, getting them to care for each other and make school attendance their top priority.
In one of their beneficiary schools, learners took on the late-coming policy that saw a number of learners who travel long distances being locked out of school when they arrived late. Learners worked within their school system to lobby for policy reform that now takes into account learners’ circumstances.
Each year, teachers interact with 12.5 million learners for around 200 school days. It is critical that we maximise this opportunity to support and inspire them to keep on showing up - despite the odds stacked against them. We need to ask: how do we prevent our learners from giving in to the current that is always threatening to sink their efforts to obtain an education?
Mansfield is the programme director of DGMT’s Zero Dropout Schools Initiative