Lockdown sees 20-year record in South Africa’s school dropout rate
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Johannesburg - Mzwandile Dlanga sat on a bunk stool in the yard of his Orlando East home in Soweto, soaking up the winter sun on Friday afternoon.
The 17-year-old is a Grade 8 pupil from Orlando High School, who has dropped out of school. He is part of 500 000 South African pupils who’ve dropped out of school in the last 16 months. He’s been sitting at home since April this year.
“During the lockdown, we alternated between weeks to attend school. As time went on, we alternated between days. I have made some silly mistakes like not attending classes, not doing my homework, and arriving late for school for instance. I was taken to the principal’s office a few times and I have been given a few warnings.
“I have concerns about what they are going to do next. What if I get expelled? I do want to go to school but my wish is to be moved to a different school such as Job Rathebe Junior Secondary School, which is around the corner. I’d be happier there,” said Mzwandile.
When asked if his attitude and behaviour would change if he’d be moved, he said it would.
“I will do my best to be disciplined. I will attend classes and do what I need to do in order to pass and move on to the next grade,” he said.
This is his second time he is doing Grade 8. The reason he failed last year was because there were three subjects he didn’t write exams for at the end of the year. This called for a repetition of the grade.
Mzwandile is not the only young dropout in his humble abode headed by his unemployed mother. His brother, Andile Dlanga, has also decided to drop out of school.
Andile is 15 years old and is in Grade 7, attending Zithathele Primary School, also in Orlando East. He is said to be a “slow learner” and is probably frustrated because he finds himself in a class with pupils younger than him. Andile was not home when we met Mzwandile and his mother. He was out in the streets playing with friends in the neighbourhood.
Elizabeth Dlanga, who is the two boys’ mother, said it is painful for her, and all she wants is for her two sons to be taken back to school.
“I just want my children to be well disciplined. The 15-year-old is a slow learner, so I need help to get him into a special school that is well resourced and will be able to cater to his needs.
“My two sons have been sitting at home since April this year. As a parent, I feel helpless. What am I to do at this stage? I also live with my sister’s children as I took them in after she died, so it’s very hard for me. My 15-year-old son loves school, it’s just that he’s slow.”
According to her, the school informed her that they would look for another school for him but nothing has happened, and she’s received no feedback from the school.
“I just want Andile, my 15-year-old son, to be taken to a special school, and for Mzwandile to be transferred to Job Rathebe Junior Secondary School if that is his wish. But he must pick up his socks and focus. He can’t keep falling behind because of being ill-disciplined,” she said.
Research indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a 20-year school dropout record. The latest National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) which was released last month, painted a grim picture of the effects the pandemic was having on schooling in the country.
The education research was conducted by Nompumelelo Mohohlwane from the research co-ordination, monitoring and evaluation unit of the Department of Basic Education, and Debra Shepherd from the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University.
The research estimated that at least 500 000 children were not in school. Compared to 2018 figures, Mohohlwane said, it meant an additional 200 000 children aged 7 to 17 were out of school. In November 2020, there were 400 000 children out of school. The data was collected between April 6 and May 11, 2021.
Spokesperson of the National Department of Education Elijah Mhlanga said the high dropout rate is directly related to Covid-19.
“The forced closure of schools, poverty and extended absence from schools results in children losing interest and leaving school. Unemployment has forced some young people to go look for opportunities to support their families,” he said.
He said another factor that could’ve contributed to this high dropout rate is the rotation of timetables as learners are not always at school.
“It doesn’t work as learners are not always in school. At home, some of them don’t get support and schoolwork doesn’t get done,” he added.
On what they are doing as a department to remedy the situation, Mhlanga said the department is always providing meals to pupils to ease the burden on parents.
“The department offers school transportation and other services. What is required is that society needs to get involved and encourage learners to come to school. A strong partnership between schools and members of the community is required.
“When members of the community vandalise schools, break in and steal food and equipment, they send a message that education doesn’t matter, which contributes to discouraging learners from coming to school.
“The responsibility does not belong to education authorities alone. For schools and the system to fully function all other entities need to play their part,” he said.
Senior lecturer in the Faculty of Psychology of Education at Unisa, Dr Connie Haasbroek, said school dropout rates were the highest in the last 20 years.
“Schools were closed early for the winter holidays and were expected to resume on 19 July. Teacher unions warned that schools might miss the date because of the high Covid-19 rates during the country's third wave of infections. It’s been very difficult for schools and learners to deal with this instability,” she said.
She added that the longer it takes to get our pupils back in class, the less likely they are to return.
“Teachers are finding themselves having to play catch-up. Vocational education should be integrated into our curriculum from early grades. Decision-making, self-awareness/self-knowledge and critical thinking skills are some of the important life skills that every learner must be able to master, enabling them to make the correct life choices. They need to be supported and enabled to make healthy decisions in terms of their schooling careers,” she said.