OPINION: Matric dropouts — Department of Basic Education doth protest too much

When it comes to learners dropping out of school, the Department of Basic Education’s spokesperson seems far more interested in problematising legitimate criticism than the issue at hand.

The recent opinion piece, ‘Including dropouts in the matric pass rate detracts from the real issues affecting youngsters’, by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) chief director of communications, Elijah Mhlanga, is a worrying piece of writing.

The department’s decision to pre-empt the release of the 2023 matric results with a discussion on dropouts via Mhlanga’s opinion piece is a welcomed change and public acknowledgement of the problem. However, his piece seems more interested in problematising legitimate criticism than the issue at hand.

Mhlanga’s piece makes numerous claims regarding the state of school dropout rates in South Africa. The first, that there are “calls to include dropouts in the National Senior Certificate pass rate”, is not attributed to any person or organisation, so the veracity of this claim is difficult to confirm.

This claim, however, distorts the advocacy efforts of organisations, such as the Zero Dropout Campaign, that have called on the DBE to intentionally monitor and report on learner dropout statistics as a separate phenomenon in our schooling system.

The discussion regarding the dropout rate in South Africa has become contentious because, without standardised and regular monitoring, it is difficult to reach a consensus on the rate. Even the piece in question, although penned by someone in the department, fails to provide the reader with statistics on learner dropout or data that provide an accurate picture of learners’ journeys through school.

Because of these kinds of omissions, sectoral stakeholders and researchers often have to extrapolate from other relevant data sources such as the Census and General Household Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa between the ad hoc reporting provided by the DBE. 

Defining dropout

It also doesn’t help that the DBE continues to conflate what is typically understood as “school dropout”, ie, learners disengaging from the school system before completing matric or an equivalent qualification.

Dropout, as we define it, does not include learners who merely change schools, transition to a Further Education and Training or Technical and Vocational Education and Training college, withdraw from school for extended periods due to illness or in truly unfortunate instances, die.

In one of Mhlanga’s attempts to defend the department’s legacy and upcoming matric results, he spends paragraphs detailing a series of tragic incidents where learners died in accidents and some by suicide. This was a distasteful misdirect, as one would be hard-pressed to find even the most cynical critics of the DBE arguing that death should be conflated with dropout.

Mhlanga then goes on to detail other socioeconomic and psychosocial factors that contribute to learners dropping out, such as pregnancy, family responsibilities, injury and disability, drug and substance abuse, and even incarceration. These are all valid and if anything, make the argument for the continual monitoring and reporting of learner dropout. Doing so would provide an accurate sense of the varied challenges that cause learners to disengage from school.

Through our research and experience, we have uncovered dozens more factors that can contribute to learners disengaging from school and eventually dropping out. There is consensus among experts that dropout should not be understood as a single event, but rather the result of a long process of disengagement — a cumulative, multidimensional process caused by the convergence of several factors over time.

Research also suggests that reintroducing someone to the schooling system once they’ve been pushed or pulled out is more difficult than keeping them in school. So, Mhlanga’s assertion that there are groups of young people who “refuse to go to school, without offering any valid reason”, without considering what could be pushing them out of school such as learning difficulties or bullying and harassment, to name a few, seems far more like an attempt to present his opinion as fact.

Dropout does not occur in isolation and is often tied to other performance indicators within the department’s purview. Other phenomena such as grade repetition are reliable predictors of a learner’s potential to drop out, and recent estimates suggest that 20% of learners from Grade 10 to 12 are three or more years overage.

Literacy also has a serious impact on learners’ continued success and engagement in school. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study results published last year revealed that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language.

These results were compounded by the 2030 Reading Panel’s Background Report, which stated that by the end of Grade 1, approximately 60% of learners do not know most of the letters of the alphabet and that 30% of learners do not know all the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 2. 

Information for intervention

One of the reasons we have for so long called on the DBE to regularly monitor and publicly report the learner dropout rate in South Africa is because ultimately the DBE is the only entity with the access, authority and resources to do so.

This data would not be used as a political whipping tool as some in the DBE may fear. Instead, implementing robust systems to monitor learner dropout in real-time and regularly reporting it would guide psychosocial interventions to support learners who are experiencing the kinds of challenges that Mhlanga details in his piece. Further, it would help with high-level resource allocation and public and private support.

This year marks three decades of democracy and the end of “Bantu Education” in South Africa. Given the momentous nature of this occasion, it is understandable that Mhlanga would want to defend a part of his department’s legacy that is often contested. As he pointed out, the “real pass rate” for each matriculating class is voraciously debated on an annual basis.

This debate, however, is often reduced to a stump speech at the podium by political parties, and with a national election scheduled this year, this topic is likely to be a recurring one on campaign trails.

The Zero Dropout Campaign, however, has no interest in political alignment or point scoring. Our interest is the accurate reporting on the health of our schooling system, which some would still earnestly argue is in a critical state. 

Read the story on the Daily Maverick.