Admitting that there’s a dropout problem is just the first step, Mr President

At the annual Basic Education Sector Lekgotla held recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa raised his concerns about South Africa’s learner dropout rate, which he said was “still unacceptably high”.

After years of campaigning to raise awareness and seek solutions, it is affirming for organisations such as the Zero Dropout Campaign to hear the president publicly acknowledge this crisis. However, as the saying goes, acknowledging that there is a problem is just the first step.

The National Council of Provinces is currently processing the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill which, according to its author the Department of Basic Education (DBE), aims to address various issues within South Africa’s schooling sector. This legislation is seven years in the making, and it is reported that during its drafting, the president’s concerns regarding learner dropout were what led to the inclusion of a clause to address the ongoing crisis.

Learner disengagement and dropout however cannot simply be legislated away. Through our research over the years, we have encountered dozens of different socioeconomic factors that contribute to learners dropping out. These factors range in circumstances and behaviours that over periods of time ‘push’ and ‘pull’ learners away from classrooms and schools. The Bill unfortunately also presumes that existing datasets on learner attendance and school dropout rates are accurate and complete, even though research shows that this is not necessarily the case.

What is currently ‘Clause 3’ of the Bill, aims to amend the South African Schools Act to place new obligations on educators, principals, and school governing bodies to ‘promote and monitor the attendance of learners at school’ as a mechanism to prevent dropout. This is a noted start but one dimensional in its approach. The clause currently requires teachers to report extended ‘unexcused absences’ to their principal, who in turn should investigate and report their findings to the school’s governing body. This is a potentially lengthy process that does not take into consideration that reintegrating learners who have already disengaged from school is far more difficult than retaining them through preventative interventions such as early warning systems. The Zero Dropout Campaign has developed and proposed a free Early Warning Toolkit that can be used in classrooms and across a matrix tracks attendance in addition to other warning signs of disengagement such as academic performance and behavioural issues.

Beyond the classrooms a comprehensive approach to dropout prevention must include intergovernmental committees at provincial and national levels to monitor and respond to learner dropout trends. Further, data monitoring for dropout prevention should be institutionalised in the DBE and provincial education departments by identifying and defining a set of indicators to be tracked, including but not limited to, learner attendance. These tracked indicators should also be reflected in the government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework to ensure comprehensive adherence and accountability. Monitoring requirements also cannot be legislated without administrative resources and support allocated to them. To empower the sector to fulfil prescribed monitoring requirements, schools should also be capacitated with data administrative posts and training be provided to skill school staff on how to institutionalise the data collected.

All this proposed monitoring and data collection cannot be done in isolation. There is also desperate need for psychosocial support at school level, particularly as a fundamental resource in quintile 1-3 public schools. Exposure to trauma, violence, loss of family members, hardships at home, deteriorating living conditions and lack of access to services can all have immediate and long-term consequences for children and their families. Psychosocial support services such as those provided by counsellors, social workers, or mentors, are crucial to create a safe and supportive environment for learners. In the absence of guardians with the ability and/or means to support their children, these service providers can play a pivotal role in the engagement and motivation of learners in school, as research suggests that the presence of just one engaged adult can improve the academic performance of a learner. With this in mind, BELA’s proposed criminal penalties for parents and guardians for their children’s absence from school remains a concern for organisations such as ours. Fines and imprisonment should be a last resort, if ever utilised, in these circumstances. Criminalisation will most likely make financial and emotional provision difficult, unintentionally perpetuating cycles of poverty and disengagement from education.

The BELA Bill and the president’s accompanying sentiments are well intended and deserving of support. However, adequately addressing and reducing South Africa’s learner dropout rate requires a multifaceted approach featuring various polices and initiatives implemented at all levels of government. So, as this bill continues through Parliament and provincial legislatures, we urge policymakers to earnestly engage the public comments and recommendations made as we seek robust solutions to a crisis we are all committed to resolving.