Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency Archives (ANA)
Johannesburg - They are the lost generation, the thousands of born-frees whose absence from the matric pass roll speaks of an educational system in crisis.

On Friday, experts and politicians questioned the Department of Basic Education’s assertion that the 2018 National Senior Certificate pass rate stood at 78.2%.

They point to a pass rate that is less than half the department’s figure.

“Unfortunately, we must... confront a shocking truth: the real matric pass rate is 37.6% if you include the number of 2016 Grade 10s who (did not write) matric in 2018,” said the DA’s shadow minister of basic education, Nomsa Marchesi.

“These Grade 10s should be celebrating with other matriculants, but more than half didn’t write matric in the expected time frame. This means only 37.6% of these Grade 10s passed matric. The others have either become stuck in a struggling education system, repeating grades, or worse, dropped out of the system completely.”

Nearly half of the pupils who enrolled in Grade 1 12 years ago had disappeared from the schooling system.

Little research has been done into who these missing pupils are, but a 2013 academic paper that drew on data collected on education in a national household survey in South Africa paints a stark picture.

The UCT paper, Progress through school and the determinants of school dropout in South Africa, found that coloured, followed by black pupils, were most likely to drop out of school.

White and Indian children were less likely to leave school before matric.

Socio-economic factors, the researchers found, played an important part in drop-out rates. “Progress through school is shown to be slow with high rates of repetition throughout grades and drop outs increasing systematically from Grade 7 onwards. Very few youth successfully complete matric and even fewer attempt the alternative vocational route,” the study found.

Over 24% of girls claimed they had dropped out because they had fallen pregnant. The most common reason given by male pupils for leaving was that they could not afford to stay in school.

Those who did drop out were found to be unemployed and not studying two years later.

“It is a major concern that learners are leaving the schooling system,” said Professor Sarah Gravett, the executive dean in the faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg. “For far too long we have placed emphasis on matric but the problem is at primary and foundation phase. If you want an enduring change in the education system you must start there.”

Gravett said a review of the curriculum should be undertaken, and that the curriculum should be trimmed. Teachers also needed to be properly supported and equipped to teach at the foundation phase.

The department had, however, introduced two initiatives that had shown signs of addressing the drop-out problem, said Roné McFarlane, the co-head of research at Equal Education.

The first was a progression policy where pupils are pushed up to the next grade if they have failed more than once in a phase.

Progression pupils were also given the option to complete Grade 12 in two years. “Research has shown that repeating grades increases the chances of dropping out. What is encouraging is that we are seeing a number of progression learners passing,” said McFarlane.

The other initiative involved teachers in early literacy programmes being given on-site coaching. South Africa had had a drop-out problem for years but it was a ticking time bomb as the country battled to overcome a stagnant economy and rising unemployment.

“What is devastating is the potential we are losing.”

Saturday Star