SA can reduce its school dropout rate using simple tools, experts say

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The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the education sector, and nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than with national school dropout rates, which reached record highs in 2021. But one advocacy group, the Zero Dropout Campaign, believes that despite the enormous challenges faced by learners and teachers alike, dropout rates can be reduced using simple tools and interventions. The campaign aims to halve the rate of school dropout by 2030.

On Tuesday, the Zero Dropout Campaign launched a “Toolkit on School Dropout Prevention” – the culmination of a four-year-long pilot project in partnership with four NGOs. The pilot project aimed to develop models of best practise which could be rolled out at scale to prevent dropout.  

These tools were launched at the Zero Dropout Action Summit on 28 September 2021. Broadcaster Africa Melane, who moderated the event, said that school dropout was a peripheral issue prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“But dropout is a fringe topic no more. In July this year, researchers revealed that an additional 500 000 learners left school during the pandemic, taking dropouts to a 20-year high,” Melane said.

Early Warning System

Lynn van der Elst

One of the campaign’s tools is an Early Warning System (EWS). Using an Excel spreadsheet, the EWS uses a traffic light system to show learners who are at high, medium or low risk of dropping out. 

Merle Mansfield, programme director for the Zero Dropout Campaign, said dropout was an issue affecting society as a whole, not just schools. We need to understand how, when and why learners disengage from school, she said.

“There is a period or a process of disengagement that happens before the learner eventually drops out of school. There are factors that push and pull learners away from school that we can intervene against before it turns into eventual dropout. At a societal level, that’s the really important thing to understand,” Mansfield said. 

As for what should be done at a school level, Mansfield said interventions “don’t have to be complex”. 

“In fact, school communities can work together to come up with interventions that are contextually suitable for where they are.”  Mansfield said the tool helped to understand children at an individual level, “and to know what are the key things that we need to respond to”.


Mayke Huijbregts

Mayke Huijbregts, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, said the South African Schools Act provides for compulsory school attendance until grade nine, and makes it a criminal offense to cause children not to be at school. She said that implementation and monitoring of this “remains a challenge”. 

Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, researcher at the Department of Basic Education (DBE) who works on the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-cram) and other projects, said the country needed good data to monitor children at all levels of the schooling system. In South Africa, it was necessary to have monitoring at earlier periods in children’s schooling career, in addition to the externally administered exam at the end of schooling, she said.

Using nationally-representative household survey data, Mohohlwane and her fellow researchers working on the Nids-cram project estimated that about 500 000 more learners had not returned to school during the pandemic when compared to pre-pandemic figures. However, a recent analysis of school administrative data paints a more conservative picture.

The analysis of administrative data compared term 1, 2020 to term 1, 2021 to measure enrolment levels revealed that only 16 000 “first-time” learners in grade R or grade 1 had not started school, showing that some parents were delaying the start of school. A similar rate was seen for older learners.

Nompumelelo Mohohlwane

Although administrative data shows that higher-than-normal rates of non-attendance during the pandemic have largely not translated into permanent dropout, there are concerns that the ripple effect of disrupted learning will be felt over the next 10 years. 

Poor attendance leads to learning losses, Mohohlwane pointed out. “What we’re seeing though in continued disruptions is that not only are you missing the content of that day; children actually tend to forget.” 

This is particularly problematic in early grades where gaps in learning and skills compound over time, she explained. “It’s not immaterial to not have completed your schooling in South Africa — it has real long-term economic and life consequences in terms of addressing poverty and even the extremely high unemployment rate we’re seeing in the country.”

Compliance and support

Mansfield said it was important to move away from a “compliance” focus, asking whether children were at school every day, to a “relationship” focus, to understand why children were at school every day. 

“And so, what we are trying to do with the EWS and the dropout prevention toolkit we’ve provided is to start focusing on disengagement as a continuum of child participation. At what level is a learner engaged, at what level is a learner participating, and how does that correspond to their risk for dropout?” 

Huijbregts said it is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of every person who works with children, including parents and teachers, and religious or traditional leaders. In this way, the underlying causes leading to dropout can be identified, she said. 

Africa Melane

Lynn van der Elst, Investment Portfolio Lead at the DBE’s Care and Support for Teaching and Learning Programme, said it was possible to achieve zero dropout rates. Drawing on examples from Malawi, van der Elst said schools that had achieved this saw a “common vision” for the school, where all stakeholders worked together. This included the children themselves.

She said there was no one person, agency or organisation that could achieve zero dropout on their own. In another case study, school-based support teams involving community members and teachers alike were able to help children in distress before they dropped out of schools, she said. 

“It’s not rocket science. It’s about the heart, it’s about an ethics of care, it’s about connecting —  collaborating towards the best interest of the child,” said Van der Elst. — Sarah Evans

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