Wednesday 22 May

In the wake of the pandemic, a proposed new law to reduce school dropout is still falling short

By Mila Harding and Merle Mansfield

Our politicians often speak about the triple threat of unemployment, inequality and poverty as roadblocks to development. Embedded in these deep-seated socioeconomic issues is the number of young people who are falling through the cracks of our schooling system with few pathways to finding sustainable economic livelihoods.

The social, economic and public health consequences of school dropout are far too serious to ignore. With this context in mind, we welcome well-intentioned attempts by the government to reduce dropout through proposed changes to the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill). But there are parts of the proposed new law that we need to get right urgently.

Clause three of the BELA Bill places new obligations on educators, principals and school governing bodies to track absenteeism as a mechanism to prevent dropout. This is a good starting point because we believe that monitoring learner attendance continually is an important intervention in dropout prevention work. 

However, on its own, the proposed provision in the bill does not go far enough. Research and literature on school dropout tell us that adequate prevention measures require schools to understand, monitor and respond to the early warning indicators of disengagement and dropout. 

Early warning systems and wraparound support services must form part of a national strategic approach to addressing dropout. To be effective, this approach must be championed by the government and schools must be capacitated to implement this intervention effectively. This would require strengthening existing systems, human resource capacity and processes at schools.

The factors driving dropout

A young person’s decision to drop out comes at the end of a process of disengagement influenced by push and pull factors in their home life, school or community. This protracted process can be tracked if schools know what signs to look for. Being aware of the early warning signs will allow educators to respond to a young person’s needs, whether psychosocial or academic.

The Covid-19 pandemic and disruptions to schooling over the past two years have made the issue of out-of-school learners more salient than before. Pupils with poorer access to resources, support networks and opportunities are less likely to withstand disruptions to their education, and more likely to drop out. The General Household Survey 2021 released by Statistics South Africa showed that 29.3% of 18-year-olds had dropped out of school while 46.3% of 19-year-olds had left.

Many pupils are too old for their grade because of high rates of repetition in our schooling system, increasing their likelihood of dropping out in high school. About 20% of children in grades 10 to 12 are three or more years over-age, which is why dropout rates are highest in this phase of schooling. 

School dropout is not a problem unique to South Africa so other countries have been applying their minds to this issue too. Therefore, we should be incorporating international best practice in our approach to preventing dropout. For example, Unicef released a policy series that promotes early warning systems using simple indicators such as academic results, behaviour problems and chronic absenteeism. The strength of this approach is that it promotes the use of existing EMIS (Educational Management Information System) indicators rather than requiring additional assessments. 

Overburdening schools without adequate support

Absenteeism and dropout rates should form part of a set of indicators defined by the Department of Basic Education (DBE). These indicators should inform key performance indicators, placing reporting and monitoring obligations on provincial departments and the national government. They should also be reflected in medium-term strategic plans to ensure accountability and adherence to reduction targets.

However, the bill (in its current form) places the responsibility of attendance tracking and the burden of providing support to pupils on individual schools. There is undoubtedly a lot of work to be done to capacitate these schools to adequately track and monitor learner-level data with the explicit intention of preventing dropout. Appointing more data assistants and establishing learnerships could help to carry the load, but it would be a difficult task without them. 

School dropout prevention must be anchored in supportive interventions that enable children who are in class to access the type of insulating interventions that promote engagement. The provision of accessible, functional and effective support services will create a culture of care in schools that heighten engagement. 

To facilitate this, the bill must include a provision necessitating the formation of intergovernmental committees at provincial and national levels to address the systemic causes of disengagement and dropout. These committees could include the Department of Basic Education, the Department of Social Development and Treasury.

Dropout is both episodic and systemic. Therefore, a holistic approach to addressing dropout is needed, ranging from case-by-case considerations to systemic solutions. 

While schools have a crucial role to play, an intergovernmental approach is absolutely necessary. Considering that dropout is embedded in the country’s most pressing socioeconomic issues, we believe that addressing the problem demands the government’s full attention. DM/MC

Mila Harding is a legal researcher on the Education Rights team at SECTION27 and Merle Mansfield is the Programme Director for the Zero Dropout Campaign.

Originally published on Daily Maverick.


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