OPINION: We urgently need to address the challenge of school dropout

By Mary Metcalfe, Chief Executive Officer at PILO

The Preamble to our Constitution states that we, the people of South Africa, will work together to create a society in which we ‘free the potential of each person’. It positions the collective potential and capabilities of our citizens as a critical resource to the success in the developmental challenges we face.

The reality is, due to the state of education in our country, much of this potential is squandered each year. The work of the Zero Dropout Campaign shows that an alarmingly high proportion of learners drift away from school over the course of their school careers, with four out of ten learners ultimately dropping out without any certification on which to build a post-school pathway. This is the result of gradual alienation and disengagement, a growing sense of exclusion, and a withering of hope. And the consequences for these learners – but also our country – are dire.

In fact, few challenges are more urgent in South Africa than school dropout. The consequences of the loss of nearly half of our young people who start their schooling journey will undermine the urgent tasks of building a just and inclusive society, where everyone is able to contribute to the development of our economic, social and political systems; as well as family and community wellbeing.

While dropout is often seen to be an individual failure or weakness, the scale of dropout is so significant in South Africa that we have to ask: What is happening – in society and in our education sector – to drive this phenomenon so systemically? Do these drivers affect some more than others – and do they intersect with our national fault lines of class, race, gender and rurality?

Based on thorough research, the Zero Dropout Campaign is making visible both the causes and the pervasiveness of dropout in the country. The campaign is proposing interventions that all schools can adopt to minimise the risk of disengagement and eventual dropout by learners, and advocating for policy interventions at the national and provincial level to stem the tide of learners’ lost potential each year.

The onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has placed even more learners at risk of dropout, has made the need for the Zero Dropout Campaign more urgent than ever before. For instance, Grade 9 and 10 learners – a precarious age of early adolescence – lost approximately 40% of the days in their school calendar year; even when they were able to return to school, many could only do so on alternative days (or weeks) as schools sought to accommodate learners within physical distancing requirements. The Department of Basic Education has indeed expressed concern at poor attendance rates post-lockdown and sounded alarm bells of increased dropout moving forward.

In what is sure to be an ongoing period of uncertainty for both learners, and the country at large, we need all stakeholders to work together to make schools places in which learners feel safe, welcomed, and supported to learn and catch up. We need to be even more vigilant in identifying learners who are at risk. Now, more than ever, is the moment to ensure all our learners are able to leave school with the necessary credentials in hand to declare they have succeeded and met a minimum standard of performance in their school years. Young people deserve to leave school with a sense of achievement and their self-esteem intact, so that they are able move forward into a range of pathways and feel they have a contribution to make. The Zero Dropout Campaign’s rigour, advocacy, ideas and engagement with a range of stakeholders has the power to do just this, and alter the trajectory of young people by ensuring we ‘free their potential’ – not just to improve outcomes for each individual learner, but for the development of our nation as a whole.