Why are teens dropping out of the South African schooling system in such large numbers? Ciska Thurman investigates
For many people, this time of year is all about new opportunities and a brand new school year. For others, it serves as a reminder of lost educational opportunities. Roughly half of all the learners who embark on a school career in this country never complete it. Most alarmingly, they withdraw in Grades 10 and 11, just as the finish line – passing Grade 12 – beckons. So how are we as a society, as policy-makers, educators and parents, failing them?
The schooling status quo
In 2014, there were only 532 860 pupils who wrote matric, even though there were 1 085 570 students in the starting cohort 11 years earlier. Dr Nic Spaull, a postdoctoral fellow in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, helps to put the figures into perspective: for every 100 students who began their schooling in 2003, only 49 made it to matric in 2014, only 37 passed and only 14 qualified to go to university.
Given that only about 40% of any given group of students will go on to pass matric, we can say that 60% of South Africa’s youth don’t have educational qualifications. There is no pre-matric qualification that is acknowledged or accepted, so a pupil who doesn’t reach, write and pass matric will not have any proof of his or her educational status. Employers won’t accept school reports, since these aren’t standardised on a national level and are thus unreliable indicators of academic achievement.
Dropping out of school or failing matric has serious consequences for the labour market. This can be seen when looking at data from the 2011 National Census. The unemployment rate for 25–35 year olds with ‘less than matric’ was 47% in 2011 (compared to the much lower 33% for 25–35 year olds with a matric).
Why learners leave
The main reasons for pupils dropping out seem to be social (often rooted in poverty) and systemic (failings within our system). Dr Martin Gustafsson of Stellenbosch University, whose paper ‘The when and how of leaving school: The policy implications of new evidence on secondary schooling in SA’ explores the problem, lists what young South African pupils cite as their motives for giving up on education:
• Lack of financing
• Wanting to look for a job
• Failing grades
Further social factors that have surfaced in other research include the lack of adults at home, getting involved in crime or gangsterism, drug or alcohol abuse, and HIV infection. These are all effects of poverty. But the weaknesses of our education system are to blame, as well, says Dr Gustafsson (specifically the low quality of primary and lower secondary education).
Commentators suggest that underachieving pupils are pushed out by principals who are faced with systemic pressure to attain much higher matric pass rates (especially as these students are no longer required to be in school after the age of 15).
Stay in school
Prof Jan Heystek, an education expert at North-West University, notes that another important factor is the value that the school system holds for pupils and parents. ‘If they feel they won’t get any financial or positive gain, parents will not encourage children to stay in school.’ So while the SA Department of Education attempts to pull up its socks (see the ‘Action plan to 2019: Towards the realisation of schooling 2030’, which is part of the National Development Plan), we as parents and educators have an equal responsibility to support, encourage and motivate learners to stay in school.
Help your kids stay the course
1. Identify the reasons behind them wanting to drop out.
2. If social, seek help from social workers, counsellors or family and neighbours who can support the learner – and start to tackle the problem.
3. Consider alternative routes towards a qualification or into the labour market.
• Attend a Technical Vocational Further Education and Training (FET) college. These technical, community or private colleges offer career-oriented education and training, including internships. The quality of these centres varies significantly, so do your research to ensure the college is accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA).
• Study at an Adult Basic Education and Training centre (abet.co.za). The concept of ABET is specific to South Africa and is about integrating education and training.
• Get a qualification through a learnership (saqa.org.za). A learnership is a work-based learning programme that leads to a qualification registered by the NQF (National Qualifications Framework). Learnerships are directly related to an occupation or field of work – for example, electrical engineering or hairdressing.
• Start a small business.
• Join the army or police service.
• Volunteer in an industry of interest to them.
Ultimately, as Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University points out, ‘The aim of educating South Africa’s youth is to enable them to develop their talents and abilities and to lead the sorts of lives they have reason to value.