Not going all the way

Giving a voice to young people is one of the aims of the Youth Policy Initiative (YPI), a project led by the Human Sciences Research Council in partnership with the youth sector, key government departments, non-governmental organisations and the media.

The initiative consists of six round-table discussions at which experts from the policy, programme and research environments are brought together to highlight key challenges confronting young people, debate the nature of challenges and their possible solutions, and discuss multisectoral and integrated approaches to addressing them.

A number of innovative modes of participation – using podcasts, web and SMS polls, discussions at youth centres and on community radio – are being used to engage young people in the YPI.

The round table on learner retention, held on November 20 last year at the Reserve Bank in Pretoria, sought to interrogate the adequacy of data sources to determine drop-out, identify reasons for drop-out and discuss possible interventions.

Gugu Nyanda, lead speaker at the round table, said that the absolute numbers of dropouts are difficult to estimate because data collected is not geared towards its measuring and monitoring. Researchers agree that the best way to track learner flow in the education sector is through a system consisting of a central register with information on every learner. Such a system was proposed by the department of education several years ago, but is yet to materialise.


Despite major concerns about the quality, reliability and completeness of data – and a lack of conceptual understanding of what constitutes drop-out – some trends can be intimated from data collected by the department of education and the recent Community Household Survey (CHS).

Participation levels of the 7- to 15-year age group in the South African population have reached universal enrolment levels of approximately 90% or higher in all provinces. Grades 1 and 2 are characterised by over-enrolment, pointing towards high levels of repetition rather than drop-out. But the majority of children complete primary schooling and for the most part enter secondary school.

Entry into secondary school is characterised by a “revolving door syndrome’ – young people are able to get there, but are circulating in the system, unable to make it through to matric. This is qualified by the CHS, which shows overall improvement in the percentages of the population with no schooling and those with higher education, but very slow progress in the proportion attaining matric.

Enrolment starts to decline sharply at the end of compulsory schooling at grade 9, or 15 years of age. As such, the highest drop-out rates are experienced from age 16 to 18, roughly corresponding to grades 10 to 12.

Data on the reasons for drop out is also limited. Information available suggests that repetition and low achievement, because of the lack of remedial programmes, might be chief among the reasons for bleeding in the system. Poor quality of interaction between teachers and learners also contributes to learners exiting the system.

Young people concurred with these findings and suggested that a culture of failure had become normative. They expressed frustration with the inexperience of teachers often teaching subjects for which they were not qualified, and the lack of relevance of education to the South African context and to day-to-day life experience. Peer pressure to engage in anti-social behaviour and lack of discipline were also some of the push factors within the schooling system.

Conditions within the home and the community also pull learners out of school. These include financial difficulties by way of direct costs (school fees), indirect costs (transport, books, uniforms) and opportunity costs of education (having to work to support the family, household chores and taking care of siblings).

Young people also cited health concerns (teenage pregnancy and caring for parents and siblings infected by HIV) as reasons for drop-out. Underpinning these factors was limited parental support to cope with both the technical and social aspects of schooling.

Every year one-million learners exit the schooling system, 70% with incomplete secondary school education. Remediation is costly and difficult to achieve. A dual focus of strengthening the school system to prevent drop-out and creating second chances is required – concerted efforts must be made to keep learners in school for as long as possible.

In summarising the findings of the round table, the chair, Mary Metcalfe, indicated that interventions must recognise that pervasive and chronic poverty underpins the reasons for learners not completing school. Furthermore, the sectoral insularity that characterises service delivery must change.

As outlined above, the reasons for drop-out reach beyond the borders of the schoolyard and are part economic, part social and part personal. As such, learner retention cannot be the sole responsibility of the department of education. An integrated and cross-sectoral approach is a prerequisite, and the round table proposed the following interventions to create good first chances:

  • Extend the child-support grant to 18 years of age and attach conditionalities for school completion, as has been successfully demonstrated in South America;
  • Build into the education system much more rigorous quality assurance so that the experience of schooling is meaningful and gainful;
  • Strengthen the availability of resources to teachers – both within the education and social services systems – to identify and support learners at risk of dropping out. This includes school aids and peer-support mechanisms;
  • Increase investment in early childhood development and the foundation phase to ensure readiness for school and to prevent early repetition, evidence for which is unequivocal; and
  • Improve counselling services available to learners both within the schooling system and through parallel support services such as churches and youth structures.

    Given the sheer number of young people who exit the schooling system prematurely, Carmel Marock, a discussant at the round table, indicated that a wider and more flexible range of learning pathways had to be promoted to create second chances.

    Many young people want to obtain their matric but they are largely unaware of the alternative pathways. These pathways are stigmatised as second-class education for “school rejects”.

    But the value of further education and training (FET) and other vocational programmes, such as the National Youth Service and the Expanded Public Works Programme, must be conveyed, and allocated adequate resources to strengthen these systems, including funding for potential students to access them.

    For learners in grades 10 to 12 and beyond to be able to enter and complete alternative pathways, they need to be linked to viable exit opportunities either in the form of further education or to the workplace. Greater coherence is required in skills development programmes as well as between alternative pathways and the world of work. Given the social, economic and personal factors that underpin school drop-out, alternative pathways must be closely aligned to social support services.

    Beyond the discussion of first and second chances, a conceptual shift in thinking about the issue of learner retention is required. The drop-out label carries with it the stigma of personal marginalisation and failure. Yet alternative pathways such as FET colleges are part of the education system — simply taking an alternative route to achieve the same end.

    If we hope to turn the tide on the low status attached to FET and to encourage learners to see this as a continuation of their education we need to espouse a more positive and empowering discourse about school drop-out. The round table proposed the term “non-completer” or “not-yet-complete” to signify someone who has not yet achieved the status of grade or certificate completion.

    Saadhna Panday (PhD) is a senior research specialist on child, youth, family and social development in the HSRC. Fabian Arends is research specialist on education science and skills development in the HSRC. They write on behalf of the Youth Policy Initiative team

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