Noticing Early Signs Of Learner Disengagement Can Prevent Dropouts

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Learner dropouts have been an ongoing issue for the Department of Basic Education. Even though there have been slight improvements, more intervention is needed. 

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South Africa has a shockingly high rate of learners dropping out of schools, which has been a great cause of concern for the Department of Basic Education (DBE), particularly as the country deals with a sky-high unemployment rate, especially amongst the youth.

A matric certificate holds quite a bit of weight in South Africa, due to the economic and severe youth unemployment situation the country finds itself in, but a large number of learners don't make it to their Grade 12 final exams. 

A Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) General Household Survey reported that approximately 51% of learners who start Grade 1 will complete Grade 12 and obtain a National Senior Certificate, and it is estimated that 250 000 learners dropout of school every year.

Studies suggest that learners who drop out of school prematurely experience a lack of access to higher education and fewer job opportunities than learners who complete basic education schooling.

In 2008, a major review was conducted, which revealed that academic underachievement and grade repetition were the two main contributors to the high dropout rate. A decade and a half later, these issues remain relevant in the South African schooling system, despite some improvements.

The early signs of a learner potentially dropping out typically show at a young age, and take the form of frequent absenteeism, poor academics and behavioural problems. 

Learners that are present in schools where they are struggling to cope, understand and keep up with the work, and where they simply don't enjoy the school environment, can lead to the decision to dropout entirely.

Merle Mansfield, Director of Zero Dropout Campaign, says that if these various signs and factors are recognized early enough, a learner's perception of school can change and they can stay in education until they matriculate. 

We've seen from the interventions that we've done in other provinces that we've worked in, that as soon as there's some kind of intervention and we pick up on these signs at an early stage, and we put critical support in place, that there is [a] shift in learners' perceptions of school, in learners' engagements with school and their ability to navigate the issues that they have...we can't change their life circumstances, but we can certainly change what we expecting or asking learners to do, often on their own.

She adds that a big misconception surrounding the youth is that they are lazy and unwilling to put the effort in when it comes to completing school; but, according to Mansfield, this is actually the opposite.

It comes harsh in a stark difference in terms of how people often perceive young people; that they are lazy, they don't want to perform, they're not engaged.

When I look at those [dropout] statistics, and I see something (for example) that says 20% of the kids who are in the senior/FET phase in no-fee-paying schools are three or more years over age for their grade, that tells me that they've already repeated [a grade/s] once, twice or thrice before getting to the FET phase, but they still came back. 

Mansfield says that learners returning to school despite repeating grades more than once can be seen as an opportunity in the education system to "really serve learners and young people," by taking that willingness they have to "come back to battle," and implement the support required to keep learners in school. 

Deciding to dropout of school is not a decision that is made instantaneously, but it is actually a long process that spans over many years, adds Mansfield.

A learner starts feeling disengaged, that disengagement keeps spiking and that is affected by a number of factors that they are navigating in their lives; sometimes within their homes, within their communities, within their academics, and all of those factors pile up. And, often we don't notice them [the factors], we don't pick them up, we don't respond to them, and then eventually the disengagement is so heightened for learners, that they dropout of school.

It is difficult to keep track of the school dropout rate because the data is lacking.

A learner may have transferred from one school to another, joined a private school, become homeschooled or learners repeating a grade may become the same learners that are dropping out, all without the school system knowing for sure where the learner has ended up. 

She adds that in South Africa, we actually have good monitoring systems, but that there are gaps present in the data, which can be attributed to how that data is collected. Factors that contribute to these gaps include where schools are situated, the lack of resources within certain schools, and not enough man-power. 

Covid-19, bullying in schools, teen pregnancies, geography, violence at schools and in communities, all play an influential role into why learners choose to exit the school system.

Some of the Department of Basic Education's key initiatives to combatting the high rate of school dropouts include the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), the expansion of the learner-level enrolment and attendance monitoring systems, no fee-paying schools, policies on teenage pregnancies, as well special examination preparation support for Grade 12 learners. 

Additionally, the Department also aims to improve learning in early grades.

A key government priority is improving reading, learning and teaching in general, but specifically within early grades so that learners are motivated to complete their schooling and in the process, decrease school dropout rates. 

Efforts will be made in implementing activities to build resilience among high-risk learners, including support programmes, tracking learner attendance, behaviours and academic performance as a way to identify those at risk of dropping out and providing support as needed.

Violence prevention, psychosocial support and emotional learning activities are to be included in the school curriculum and schools will remain access points for meals, psychosocial support and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. 


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