Escalating pupil drop-out figures at SA schools remains greatest concern for authorities

File picture: Pixabay

File picture: Pixabay

Published Jan 28, 2023


Dr Zanele Zuma

Learner drop-out, although a global phenomenon, has tremendous effects on the communities of developing countries, including South Africa.

According to the UNICEF (UN International Children’s Education Fund), about 250 000 school-going children drop out of school every year. This figure tripled to 750 000 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research shows alarming rates of pupil drop-out in South African schools, that is presumably escalating. What is most concerning is that the agency suggested that the drop-out problem in South Africa seems much more seasonal than any other problem that needs urgent attention.

According to a report by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA 2022), close to 3% of 15-year-olds and nearly 9% of 17-year-olds dropped out of school in 2021.

Research reveals that in 2010, 1.1 million pupils enrolled for grade 1. Of these 1.1 million first school entries, only 755 981 enrolled for their National Senior Certificate in 2022.

The number of pupils who enrolled for matric in 2022 was 22 783; more than the previous year, 2021, in which 733 000 pupils were enrolled. These figures are an indication that pupil drop-out continues, with minimal chance of decreasing.

Pupils drop out of school in all the grades, however, the major focus is on the Further Education and Training (FET) band, especially Grade 12. This is one shortfall that results in a continued drop-out among South African Schools.

Ahead of the release of the 2022 matric results, Katherine Sutherland, from Equal Education Research, maintains that foundational numeracy and literacy is fundamental for the success of pupils at school. She has called on the government to support pupils from as early as Grade 1. She emphasises the importance of government intervention, not only on Grade 12 pupils, but also on pupils in all grades.

Pupils failure to understand teachers in class is one of the many causes of them dropping out.

The school drop-out rate is of particular concern because pupils who drop out of school prematurely will experience a lack of access to higher education, fewer job opportunities and lower wages than their peers who finished their schooling (Stats SA 2022).

Research demonstrates that education is essential in improving the socio-economic state of individual households. Besides, when pupils are educated up to the last grade at school, they already have a requirement for university entrance. Therefore South Africa, with its crawling economy, high youth unemployment rate and political uncertainties cannot afford to face escalating rates of pupil drop-out. It is a cause for concern.

The 2022 matric cohort faced insurmountable odds to get to their last grade. In 2020, when they were in grade 10, they had to transition to virtual learning because of Covid-19. Many of these pupils had to skip some days of school attendance to comply with Covid-19 regulations, and to allow other pupils a chance to come to school.

The Grade 10 curriculum for the 2022 matric cohort was not completed in 2020, and this gap may have in some way led to some pupils dropping out. This factor further widened the Black-White gap in drop-out rates of the same cohort.

By implication, factors considered to have impacted on the Black-White gap in the past, coupled with those of Covid-19, hit the black communities -- already disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure, resources (material, human and financial), overcrowding, socio-economic dispensation and a whole number of factors -- very hard.

A recent survey shows the highest number of teenage pregnancies in the same cohort of pupils, most of whom are not accounted for. Research on school drop-out for boys and girls, shows significantly different patterns by gender (Shahidul and Karim 2015 and Statistic South Africa 2022).

Reasons given for dropping out of school differ by gender, especially for females, who have to stop attending school due to family commitments (13.4%), while close to 5% of males stopped attending school because they had no interest in education (Stats SA 2022).

It is thus advisable that pupil drop-out cases be addressed by gender to be able to arrive at the crux causes of their plight, as well as being able to address it.

Among the other factors linked to school drop-out rates is teenage pregnancy, which contributes to high girl-child absences from school. Motherhood responsibilities coupled with home chores and school work weigh heavily on girls.

Subsequently their male counterparts in class outperform them. Furthermore, a high probability of pupil pregnancy linked to gender-based violence is worrisome and needs urgent attention. Again, pupils who rent residential accommodation to be close to school are at risk of being vulnerable to strangers, who may sexually abuse girls, assault boys or even convince pupils in favour of a cohabiting living arrangement.

Most of these pupils do not make it to matric, and there seems to be minimal government visibility in addressing this, particularly at school level. Even follow-ups to trace the whereabouts of drop-out pupils are not initiated, making it seem like part of the journey of the education of a South African child.

*Dr Zanele Zuma is from the School of Public Health at Wits University