OPINION - Half of all of the children who start school in Grade 1 in South Africa never make it through Grade 12.
Generations of young adults face being unequal to building livelihoods, contributing to the economy or taking an active role in the governance of the country.
Children drop out because they become demoralised or are pushed out of the system after repeated failures.
Despite huge investment in basic education (around 6.4% of GDP), enormous supply-side deficiencies, such as lack of accountability and poor quality of teaching, are key factors.
Social and economic conditions on the demand side, however, create a perfect storm for educational collapse.
Low educational attainment is billed as the principle driver of unemployment among youth in South Africa; nearly 40% of South Africans between 15 and 64 years old are not economically active.
In a self-perpetuating cycle, poverty deprives families of the power to insist on an education system that answers their needs.
Many children drop out because caregivers cannot continue to afford to provide the basic household necessities of food and clothing, and cover the costs associated with schooling – even where these are minimal.
Many children are compelled to find work to augment household income, or to attend household duties, such as the care of younger siblings. Girls are more deeply affected than boys, with nearly 20% of school non-attendance among girls being accounted for by family commitments.
Perhaps the most hidden factor is that children’s resilience and development is undermined by chronic conditions of malnutrition and food insecurity.
About 12 million children in South Africa live below the poverty line.
More than a quarter of households are exposed to regular hunger and around 25% of children are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Statistics from the South African Department of Basic Education show that just over half who start Grade 1 make it through to the beginning of Grade 12 and well under three-quarters of those registering for Grade 12 complete the year.
The effect of food insecurity on education is partially addressed in South Africa through the Government’s National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), which provides daily meals to the poorest schools in South Africa, currently reaching about 75% of children attending primary and secondary schools.
Schools are divided into quintiles, based on the relative wealth of their surrounding communities, with the NSNP targeting quintiles one to three.
Many poor and vulnerable children attend schools in quintiles four and five who remain unattended, and the quintile classification system, moreover, at times mis-classifies schools in need.
Meals in schools have multiple education-related benefits.
They can encourage school enrolment, increase attendance levels, alleviate short-term hunger and improve concentration and academic performance.
Misselhorn is director of research and strategy at the Lunchbox Fund