Tackling the crisis of youth unemployment starts with reducing the school dropout rate

President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled his government’s new six-pronged plan to tackle the high rate of youth unemployment during his State of the Nation Address, but this approach lacks the targeted policies needed to dramatically address the hidden crisis of learners dropping out of school.

“The fact of the matter is that 44% of unemployed young people have not completed Grade 12 — adding to their struggle of finding a decent job,” says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

Although the president hailed the 81.3% matric pass rate as a sign that the country is making progress in expanding state services to more South Africans, particularly those in rural schools, the Zero Dropout Campaign has consistently questioned whether the pass rate is an accurate indicator of success.

“The 2019 matric pass rate only tells us about the percentage of learners who wrote their final exams but it does not consider how many dropped out along the way due to a range of school-related and socio-economic factors,” Mansfield explains.

Around 40% of Grade 1 learners exit the schooling system before completing Grade 12. “Children from disadvantaged communities — particularly those in rural areas — face a barrage of challenges that affect their decision to drop out, such as inadequate school infrastructure or psychosocial issues at home,” she adds.

Learner disengagement is a complex topic, and international research has shown that there are as many as 40 different risk indicators affecting school dropout. “We need targeted policies to address the school-level factors fuelling the dropout rate, but we have yet to see a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder approach from the national government,” says Mansfield.

She says that to attain the campaign’s goal of halving the dropout rate by 2030, they have initiated “Reading for Meaning” programmes in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape to address the underlying learning backlogs contributing to learner dropout. “Therefore, we welcome the government’s commitment to ensuring that every 10-year-old is able to read for comprehension,” she adds.

Mansfield says the president’s focus on building social compacts through collaboration and consensus is important because South Africa needs a whole-of-society approach to ensure that every child has the opportunity to complete their schooling.

“This is precisely why we are in the process of activating a network of schools and other education stakeholders to work collaboratively to share ideas, experiences and information on how to spot learner disengagement and reduce dropout,” Mansfield concludes.

For more information and interview requests, contact Zero Dropout Campaign Communications Lead Rahima Essop.