NEW RESEARCH – School Dropout: Reading Between the Lines

As the nation eagerly anticipates the release of matric results in South Africa, the disconnect between these results and the underlying dropout crisis unveils a concerning narrative that demands urgent attention. 

“It’s crucial to acknowledge that the matric results, while a cause for celebration for many, do not paint the full picture of educational attainment in South Africa,” remarked Merle Mansfield, Programme Director at the Zero Dropout Campaign. “Our latest research publication School Dropout: Reading Between the Lines delves into the distressing disparity between these results and the pervasive dropout rates, uncovering a systemic issue that’s impeding our nation’s progress.”

South Africa’s literacy crisis

The statement that South Africa faces a literacy and reading crisis has been a constant refrain for several decades and has led to increased calls for drastic action.  

Last year, the Reading Panel released their 2023 Background Report which found that by the end of Grade 1, approximately 60% of learners don’t know most of the letters of the alphabet, and that by the end of Grade 2, 30% don’t either. This was compounded by release of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results months later that revealed that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language. These results indicate a decrease in performance from PIRLS 2016 results that found that 78% 

of learners at that time could not read for meaning. The 2021 results have regressed to levels last achieved by South African learners in 2011, indicating that ten years of progress in reading at primary school level has been lost.

School Dropout: Reading Between the Lines underscores the inherent link between South Africa’s persistently poor literacy levels and its high dropout rates, emphasising the need for a comprehensive approach to address these intertwined challenges. 

Unpacking the link between illiteracy and dropout

The publication considers how literacy, with a focus on reading, is fundamental to children in South Africa’s success at school and in reducing school dropout levels. 

Successful learning depends on the ability to read and comprehend texts. Without this foundation, as learners move through grades, they cannot engage with and master content matter. Learners’ initial grasp of reading and other foundational learning skills can therefore act as early indicators of the likelihood a learner may drop out of school.  

“If children are not able to develop foundational reading skills, they are unable to grasp core learning concepts, acting to the detriment of their trajectory through school and thereby increasing the risk of dropping out,” says Mansfield.

In this publication, the Zero Dropout Campaign looks at major challenges that the field of education faces in improving literacy levels in schools and provide examples and recommendations that show that possibilities exist for improving learners’ literacy levels which, in turn, contributes to reducing school dropout.  

Lessons learned

Other countries with similar economic contexts to South Africa that have experienced extensive periods of school closure, and implemented programmes to reintegrate learners who have been out of school for lengthy periods, have demonstrated the success of principles and practices which the Zero Dropout Campaign is calling for the implementation and expansion of locally such as:

  • Accelerated Learning Programmes (ALPs) that focus on the most crucial skills and knowledge;
  • Teaching learners to the right level and not according to grade standards; and
  • Monitoring and early warning systems for dropout.

Looking forward

The complexities of the education system preclude a one size-fits-all response to the many challenges that need to be faced in addressing the country’s reading crisis. But the lack of publicly defined strategies – in relation to reading and literacy in general and in response to the effects of the pandemic – present a worrying delay in the implementation of school policies and practices, and interventions that could assist educators in their role in teaching and promoting reading and in strengthening learners’ literacy practices and levels.

With the seeming absence of post-COVID-19 recovery programmes in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, the likely increase in learners’ poor performance, grade repetition and the associated risk of disengagement present further threats to already high dropout rates. Without dedicated time or financial resources budgeted for remediation, educators are placed in an untenable position where they are expected to complete the curriculum while simultaneously putting in place strategies to catch up the lost time on teaching.

South Africa faces a double challenge of having to address the extensive gaps in learning that existed prior to school closures and those that result from school closures. Attending to the loss of learning directly attributed to school closures is inadequate when there are prior learning backlogs that have not been addressed. Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) and methods underpinning ALPs do not only offer an opportunity to reduce learning losses that are attributable directly to the pandemic but also to address existing backlogs. While implementing remediating programmes is crucial post the pandemic so, too, is continuing to build on and learn from interventions that were in place prior to the pandemic.