As the Zero Dropout Campaign, we know that tackling the socioeconomic drivers of dropout requires policy change and political commitment that can take a long time. But there are steps we can implement now to ensure learners get the support they need to complete their schooling. The first thing to remember is that dropout is the convergence of a series of push and pull factors over time – making it both systemic and episodic. With this in mind, it’s important to note that our strategies are by no means exhaustive. But they provide a good foundation from which to pre-empt the challenges that may lead to learner disengagement and eventual dropout.
Educators cannot tackle the problem of dropout alone. They need the buy-in of parents and communities who have a role to play in reducing dropout. We need to view dropout as a collective problem that requires a collective solution. That way, we can inspire a network of schools to collaborate and share ideas and experiences on how to support learners. At the onset, NGOs working in the school space should initiate a relationship of trust and understanding. Once a solid relationship is established, schools are more open to assistance. As the relationship is developed, NGOs need to empower the people within the school environment to take the lead on the interventions so that they can be sustainable in the long term.
Dropout is typically the result of disengagement or falling behind at school, which can be caused by social, psychological, and family challenges that impact on a learner’s attendance and performance at school. Many learners in South Africa come from challenging home environments where they may receive little emotional support from a parent or caregiver. Creating meaningful connections with even just one caring adult can make a significant difference in a young person’s life and their ability to deal with such challenges. Among their strategies, our implementing partners offer psychosocial support through mentoring, group and individual counselling, life-skills building, and referrals to professional and state services.
We need to identify specific learning gaps in the Foundation Phase and implement accelerated learning programmes to help learners who are falling behind academically. In addition, it’s critical that teachers are able to make the existing curriculum engaging and relevant. They need to be able to present content in a manner that nurtures a sense of wonder and imagination in learners, the ability to think critically, be curious, and express their ideas.
What does the ideal school look like? For many, it is a place of safety, stimulation, curiosity, and learning. It is a place free from bullying and corporal punishment, where all learners are treated with respect and care – by their teachers as well as their peers. Teachers do not fear for their safety. They are free from the pressure to cover the curriculum, and from teaching in overcrowded or unruly classrooms, to focus on creating a culture of creativity and care in which children are primed to learn. It is a space that is clean, colourful, and adequately resourced with books, desks, chairs, and supplies. It is staffed by effective administrators — skilled, motivated and engaged teachers — as well as dedicated support staff. Interventions that help to make schools more learner-friendly, inviting, and safe can have a significant impact on keeping youth in school by increasing school attendance and facilitating learning.
All public schools have school management systems that collect learner data. The data is sent to national or provincial offices each term, but many schools do not get to use the data themselves. Moreover, the data collected at this level falls short of the detail required to track indicators at the learner level so as to flag which learners are struggling or disengaging at school, and therefore in danger of dropping out. There needs to be more dual analysis of data with schools. Currently analysis is done at district level, with schools getting schedules which often show aggregate academic performance only. It would be useful for them to have a comprehensive view of their school’s performance and even a comparative view of how they fare against other schools. Data collection is important, but mobilising already over-stretched schools to collect the data themselves can be difficult.