We can build back better after Covid-19 with a coordinated dropout strategy

Tracking absenteeism at schools is integral to dropout prevention, even more so with many learners not returning to class because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the importance of accurate data and information in uncertain times, we don’t have systematic and complete learner-level data from the government, according to new research commissioned by the Zero Dropout Campaign.

“We approached academics at Stellenbosch University to look at available datasets to better understand the implications of the pandemic on flows through our education system, particularly on dropout[1]Servaas van der Berg & Chris van Wyk & Rebecca Selkirk, 2020. “Schools in the time of COVID-19: Possible implications for enrolment, repetition and dropout,” Working … Continue reading,” says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

Research confirms that incomplete datasets are impacting our ability to track learners’ pathways through school over a long time, and that some learner records are untraceable.

Although the Learner Unit Record Information and Tracking System (LURITS) tries to address this problem, it’s wrought with gaps and inaccuracies, because of how data is managed at school-level and how that data is reported to higher levels in the education system.

“We need to be able to track learners more intentionally to know the true extent of dropout in the country,” Mansfield explains.

These findings are detailed in the campaign’s annual publication on the state of dropout in South Africa, due to be released early next year.

In a recent response to a written Parliamentary question, the Department of Basic Education said that 326 000 learners are unaccounted for and may have dropped out[2]https://www.iol.co.za/the-star/news/326-000-pupils-believed-to-have-dropped-out-between-april-and-october-39117879-69c5-466b-89de-2dea8f155040. However, these figures show improbable variations from province to province, suggesting that no standard definition of dropout or universal set of indicators were used.

Absenteeism rates this year have been higher than normal. When schools reopened in July, most of them experienced absenteeism of between 10-25% as compared to the normal 2%[3]https://cramsurvey.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/11.-Mohohlwane-Policy-Brief.pdf.

Some learners did not return to school because they feared contracting Covid-19; they were queueing for Covid-19 relief grants; they had caregiving responsibilities at home; or they felt demotivated by the amount of school days lost.

“In response, teachers and principals started communicating more intentionally with parents, through home visits, phone calls and WhatsApp messages, encouraging them to send their children back to school,” says Mansfield.

Although this approach is encouraging and should continue, it must form part of a coordinated dropout prevention strategy when the new academic year begins.

“A coordinated response to dropout must begin with accurate data tracking of individual learners, coupled with psychosocial interventions to re-engage them,” Mansfield points out.

Mansfield says that collecting information about individual learners’ attendance, behaviour, and academic performance could help to flag young people most at risk of dropping out.

“We need to improve our existing data management systems if we are to build back better after the pandemic. This requires improvements in data management at schools through capacitating staff with user-friendly tools and relevant skills,” says Mansfield.

“As a country, we may be able to unlock a powerful system in the campaign against dropout if we can get the unique learner identification system to function properly,” Mansfield concludes.


1 Servaas van der Berg & Chris van Wyk & Rebecca Selkirk, 2020. “Schools in the time of COVID-19: Possible implications for enrolment, repetition and dropout,” Working Papers 20/2020, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
2 https://www.iol.co.za/the-star/news/326-000-pupils-believed-to-have-dropped-out-between-april-and-october-39117879-69c5-466b-89de-2dea8f155040
3 https://cramsurvey.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/11.-Mohohlwane-Policy-Brief.pdf