Building a resilient education system starts with fixing our broken schools

Four out of ten learners who start school will drop out before reaching matric because their education is disrupted by factors in three overlapping spheres of their lives: the home, school and neighbourhood. Over time, these factors can unsteady learners on their path to school completion, leading to disengagement and eventual dropout[1]Branson et al. 2013; De Witte et al. 2013; Dockery N.D.; Hammond et al. 2007; Sabates et al. 2010.

Dropout is rarely about a single event. It follows a long process of disengagement caused by disruptions to learning, which is why anything that hampers teaching and learning, such as the lack of access to resources and infrastructure problems, can elevate the risk of school dropout.

“The fact that infrastructure remains a barrier in spaces where learners are already contending with socio-economic challenges outside of the school space, is a big concern for us,” says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

“The 2020 deadline of the Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure is a reminder that many schools in rural and peri-urban areas are not equipped to provide healthy and safe learning environments, even though some progress has been made in the last seven years,” adds Mansfield.

The backlog in meeting the minimum norms and standards became apparent as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. After two months of lockdown, when school was set to resume for Grade 7 and 12 learners, more than 1000 schools could not re-open as planned because they still did not have access to water, proper infrastructure, or safe sanitation facilities[2]Mbinqo-Gigaba, B. 30 June 2020. ‘Reopening of school progress report. Portfolio committee on basic education meeting.’ Available at:

“From our own experience in KwaZulu-Natal, our NPO implementing partner reported that one school shut down for a few weeks because of water supply shortages. At the same time, some teachers have told us that they consider the mandatory provision of water tanks as a ‘positive’ outcome of the pandemic because they now have a consistent supply,” Mansfield explains.

In the Eastern Cape, the conditions at some schools in Port St Johns are reportedly so unbearable that principals say it’s the reason learners are dropping out[3]

“Well-run and maintained schools, in which young people feel safe to learn, can improve their chances of completing school, even when they are disadvantaged by challenging home environments,” says Mansfield.

In 2013, the Department of Basic Education introduced legally binding regulations for all public schools and set targets for compliance. In 2016, all schools had to be provided with water, electricity and decent sanitation. However, according to a report published by the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) in 2019, plain pit latrines are the only form of toilets at 3710 schools and 169 schools do not have any form of electricity supply[4]

By 29 November this year, all schools should have been given an adequate supply of classrooms, electricity, water, toilets, perimeter security and connectivity (such as internet access for teaching and learning and administrative purposes).

“Safety and sanitation are basic requirements for hygiene under a pandemic, but more so for dignity in the everyday life of learners,” says Mansfield.

“The situation in many of our schools has not been normal for some time, which is why we need to build back better under the so-called new normal by ensuring there is sufficient investment in infrastructure,” Mansfield concludes.


1 Branson et al. 2013; De Witte et al. 2013; Dockery N.D.; Hammond et al. 2007; Sabates et al. 2010
2 Mbinqo-Gigaba, B. 30 June 2020. ‘Reopening of school progress report. Portfolio committee on basic education meeting.’ Available at: