Dear Minister Motshekga,
The basic education sector has faced exceptional challenges since Covid-19 set in motion a raft of restrictions and lockdowns. The phased reopening of schools, with grades 7 and 12 returning first, followed by further disruptions to normal timetabling, have resulted in a patchwork school calendar for almost two years. As a consequence of these disruptions, we are witnessing alarming rates of learning losses, low attendance figures and high dropout.
As education activists, researchers and advocates, we welcome the attention that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is devoting to the impact of the pandemic on our schooling system – which we consider a rights-based concern.
All children in this country have the constitutional right to basic education. To stop regressions of the rights to basic education and equality (among other rights), it is crucial that your department and provincial education departments (PEDs) urgently track and trace learners who left school during the pandemic, and strengthen plans to prevent further learning losses. Now, more than ever, South Africa needs a coordinated national dropout prevention plan and an accelerated learning strategy attuned to the diverse needs of learners, particularly for literacy and numeracy. We want to work with you and your department to make this plan a reality with DBE leading the charge, supported by civil society.
The impact of the pandemic
The Covid-19 school closures and impact of the pandemic have amplified the socio-economic factors that typically lead to disengagement and dropout. The impact of these disruptions is reflected in higher-than-normal dropout figures, increased teenage pregnancies and the inability of financially strained households to pay for educational needs, such as school fees and uniforms.
Some are short-term shocks to the education system, while others will stretch far into the future. In Gauteng, the MEC for Health, Nomathemba Mokgethi, recently announced an astonishing 23,000 teenage pregnancies in the province between April 2020 and March 2021. This figure is a fraction of the number of teenage pregnancies occurring nationwide so national data is likely to show that the number of new school-aged mothers is higher than previous years. We welcome the fact that you have noted these developments as a “national crisis” and that “early unwanted pregnancy perpetuates poverty”. The majority of learners who become pregnant are likely to drop out of school. We must, therefore, take steps to re-enrol and retain these learners.
While Grade 9 marks the end of compulsory schooling, we reiterate that the right to basic education extends further than this exit grade and that learners beyond compulsory school-going age must be given the opportunity to complete their schooling. To achieve this, efforts to re-enrol learners must include learners all the way up to matric. To this point, the Constitutional Court judgment in the case of Moko v Acting Principal Malusi Secondary School confirmed that the right to basic education includes the right of access to the National Senior Certificate (NSC).
The true extent of dropout
To implement a coordinated national response to dropout, the basic education sector must confront the true extent of learner dropout. To get a handle on how many learners are dropping out requires accurate and complete datasets that track learners’ progression over the course of their schooling journey. The starting point is having a standardised definition of dropout.
School dropout can be defined in many ways, and in South Africa, these inconsistencies make it very difficult to get an accurate picture of dropout rates. It is important to be clear and precise about what is meant by dropout. Otherwise, the number of school dropouts can be significantly under-or over-estimated.
Even before the pandemic, available figures suggested that four out of ten learners who started school in Grade 1 would drop out before completing matric. The number of learners who have not re-enrolled due to Covid-19 exacerbates this worrying trend.
Since the start of the pandemic, varying figures about dropout have come to light from different quarters. This is partly because each province has a different method for reporting attendance, which makes it difficult to ascertain the true extent of learner dropout, enrolment and attendance.
In November 2020, Minister Motshekga, you answered a question in parliament stating that more than 300 000 learners could not “be accounted for and might have dropped out of school”. However, researchers have projected that learner dropout could be much higher than your initial estimates. Conservative calculations from Wave 5 of the NIDS-CRAM survey suggest that between 650 000 to 750 000 learners had not returned to school by May this year. This means that an additional 500 000 learners are not in school when compared to pre-pandemic rates, which in 2018, stood at roughly 230 000 learners dropping out annually.
In a departmental briefing last week, you noted that: “it is not yet clear whether this is temporary non-attendance, or may become permanent (dropout) from schooling. In the long run, the learning losses in primary school, may lead to an increase in dropout, when children reach the Further Education and Training (FET) Band at Grades 10, 11 and 12”. We look forward to the release of the full attendance and re-enrolment data from the department and urge you to strengthen data tracking and monitoring systems going forward.
The basic education sector needs to collect detailed and accurate information about our learners that can inform a more attentive and effective education system in which every learner is supported to finish matric. Collecting learner-level data would allow schools to incorporate Early Warning Systems (EWS) that can signal when a learner is at risk of dropping out, triggering the right type of support.
Learning losses and curriculum recovery
Even for those learners who have remained in the education sector over the past year, education has been negatively affected. Tracking the extent of learning losses and the days of teaching that have been cut from the calendar are both difficult to measure, and will vary from school to school, grade to grade and individual classroom to classroom.
Where the typical pre-pandemic school calendar had 200 days of teaching, because of staggered reopening and rotational timetables, most learners attended school much less frequently between March 2020 and July 2021. Research estimates indicate that because of the loss of teaching days, most primary school learners were between 70-100% behind the equivalent grade in 2019 in terms of learning and skills, and that there have been significant losses in terms of early grade reading in comparison to previous cohorts of learners. Learning losses are linked to dropout and disengagement, so it is essential that plans for addressing learning catch up and dropouts be run in tandem.
We welcome the DBE’s acknowledgement of the gravity of these problems. Acknowledging the burgeoning crisis of pandemic dropouts, your department released a circular detailing a three year curriculum recovery plan based on revised annual teaching plans (ATPs). We welcome news that curriculum coverage at the FET band is progressing well for the most part, but are concerned that curriculum coverage does not necessarily equate with real learning and we note that more support may be needed.
While the 2020 ATPs saw substantial cuts to the curriculum considering the shortened school calendar, we are concerned that the ATPs for 2021 do not do enough to help educators accelerate the curriculum and learning. 2021’s ATPs were developed at the end of 2020 before South Africa’s second and third waves of COVID-19 and the consequent substantial unanticipated disruptions to the 2021 school calendar. Curriculum researchers have therefore urged your department to give clearer directions to educators and schools to bridge the gaps, and that the current plans are “likely to increase inequalities in opportunities to learn”. Educators should focus on the subjects that the DBE, in consultation with educators, believe are critical to teach for the next few years. It is unrealistic to expect learners or educators to keep up with the current ATPs considering time constraints. Increased focus must be given to the different challenges facing different age groups of learners, with a guiding commitment to core skills and essential coverage. To support work done on curriculum recovery, we ask that the findings of the DBE’s curriculum coverage audit and curriculum tracking be made public. We look forward to further engagement on how support for teaching and learning will be strengthened for 2022 and the latter years.
Setting in motion a coordinated national dropout prevention plan
As a way forward, we recommend the following steps be taken at national and provincial level for the benefit of all learners:
- Encourage community involvement in getting learners back to class by leveraging structures like street committees and churches to help trace learners that are unaccounted for.
- From national level all the way to schools, we ask that you develop uniform attendance monitoring systems (until Grade 12) to get a real sense of the scope of learner disengagement and dropout.
- In consultation with the latest data from the DBE’s curriculum audit, as well as subject specialists, teachers, curriculum developers and other stakeholders, the curriculum must be revised to promote learning recovery. To catch up on learning losses and prevent learner disengagement, South Africa needs a truly accelerated learning programme containing core knowledge and skills only.
- A sustained and comprehensive, data-driven, Back-To-School plan (until Grade 12) must be initiated to reach learners who have dropped out, and to assist them with re-enrolment. This must include the development of a national Psychosocial Support Strategy (PSS) that is linked to an Early Warning System (EWS).
- Regular discussions should be held about “Care and Support in Schools” at national and provincial levels.
- Establish a learnership on how to use data to inform interventions. Capacitating school staff to use data must be institutionalised, with the necessary infrastructure and human resources for data collection and management in place.
- Dropout prevention should be an explicit goal of the education system. Dropout should be a key performance indicator (KPI) for PEDs, and the national department must set reduction targets to hold officials accountable.
We cannot run the risk of regressing on progress in achieving universal school attendance by losing a generation of learners. We can make a difference now if we initiate plans to stem learner dropout and learning losses through a sustained, consultative and pragmatic approach. Dropout is an important indicator of the success of our education system. Therefore, reducing dropout should be an explicit goal of the basic education sector. Let’s work together to make this a reality.
Associate Professor Ursula Hoadley (School of Education, University of Cape Town),
Professor Ann Skelton (UNESCO Chair, Education Law in Africa),
Associate Professor Nic Spaull (Department of Economics, Stellenbosch University).