A learner who is part of a mentoring programme tells us that it's important for him to finish school because he wants to become a pilot when he is older.

One of the most important changes we can make in our collective effort to reduce school dropout is to start keeping better records about our learners. By tracking individual learners’ absenteeism, academic performance and behaviour, we can better understand their struggles and pathways through school. This will allow us to identify learners at risk of dropout, and design well-informed support programmes, as early as possible.

Tracking absenteeism is an important intervention in effective dropout prevention strategies, even more so in the midst of a pandemic. Absenteeism rates in 2020 have been higher than normal. When schools reopened in July, most of them experienced absenteeism of between 10% and 25% as compared to the normal 2%.

What’s wrong with the current policy on absenteeism?

For all its good intentions, the existing policy (which leads to a learner’s class record being cancelled after successive days of non-attendance) fosters a punitive approach to absenteeism in which learners themselves suffer the most for what are often causes beyond their control.

The current system — and how it is used in schools — essentially contributes to disengagement and eventual dropout. This is why our implementing parts are working with schools to deal with the problem by showing care and concern for children who show early signs of disengagement.

Through the introduction of Early Warning System tools and through modelling a caring response to the problem of absenteeism, our NPO implementing partners are getting their schools to adopt a different, more engaged and caring approach.

We need strong referral systems

Our implementing partner, Khula Development Group, employs local women as “dropout catchers” who visit the homes of learners that are chronically absent from school. If a child shows signs of not attending school regularly or not arriving at school properly clothed, teachers are encouraged to alert the dropout catchers, who follow up with home visits to ascertain what problems are causing absenteeism or disengagement, and to see if there is an appropriate solution.

Teacher buy-in is essential

The “dropout catchers” rely on teachers to refer learners to them who have been absent for three consecutive days, or who show worrying behavioural patterns. Teachers do this by filling in referral forms and posting them into a box placed in the foyer of their school.

Since some teachers were using the referral system more than others, Khula saw the need to introduce teacher appreciation events to get more educators to understand the value of keeping good records on attendance and absenteeism.

Even though teachers know they are supposed to keep good records, they often do it half-heartedly or they forget to note who is absent during a lesson. Introducing teacher appreciation events and small prizes incentivises educators to be more diligent about referring absent learners.

A female learner in Gonubie tells us that a “Check & Connect” mentor encouraged her to return to school after she gave birth to her daughter at the age of 15.

Psychosocial support for learners

The Masibumbane Development Organisation (MDO) in East London has also tried to tackle the issue of absentee tracking and reintegration using a slightly different model.

MDO works in six schools where up to 30 of the most vulnerable learners in Grades 6 – 9 at each school are selected for a mentorship programme using the “Check & Connect” approach. The mentors are trained auxiliary social workers who have experience working in disadvantaged communities.

High rates of absenteeism are one of the key factors for referral to the mentorship programme, with learners selected by their schools at the beginning of the year. MDO found that having qualified and experienced social workers placed as mentors in the schools really helped to track each of the learners in the programme.

Assisting schools with tracking tools

Through its research and work with the Data Driven Districts programme, the New Leaders Foundation (NLF) has developed and is testing a range of data-based monitoring tools to inform an effective early warning system for dropout. The NLF hopes to develop a workable system which can yield high-quality data that can be used to track the pathways of individuals, to identify their struggles, and to guide the development of systemic support. The NLF has provided training to each of our implementing partners to implement the early warning system tool.

Five things you need to know about absenteeism tracking at schools

📌 It’s possible to build school-based support teams and to show them how to adopt a non-punitive and caring approach to absenteeism, which takes the many causal factors into account and allows the best interests of the learner to be considered in finding a solution. 

📌 Follow-up visits and the building of ongoing relationships with learners and their families are important as issues are seldom solved overnight.

📌 It’s crucial to build a good relationship with the teachers so as to build an efficient referral system.

📌 Where NPO personnel are conducting tracking and follow-ups of absent learners, it’s important to use persons who are respected by communities and families and can assist them to address difficult socio-economic and psychological issues.

📌 Build a good relationship with the school’s leadership and administration teams so as to access school data and assist closely where needed.