Covid-19 could have caused South Africa’s biggest school drop-out rate yet.
The Department of Basic Education projects record high drop-out rates based on the number of matric pupils who were not accounted for by the final exam last year. This was revealed in a presentation shown to parliament last week on the department’s readiness to reopen schools next month.
Over 20,000 matric learners from Gauteng, Western Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal were unaccounted for by the end of 2020, and were flagged as possible dropouts by the department.
The Western Cape led the pack with 5147 matric learners unaccounted for. In Gauteng this figure was 3980. In KwaZulu-Natal, where 100,000 learners were expected to write the matric exam, 4% of their learners were unaccounted for. In Limpopo this figure was 6%.
The number of possible dropouts were 154 in the Eastern Cape, 784 in the Free State, 408 in Mpumalanga, 580 in the Northern Cape, 360 in the North West and 360 in the Western Cape.
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According to the same presentation, schools largely struggled to achieve complete curriculum coverage for the year.
In Limpopo, grade 11s only finished 50% of the curriculum for all of their high-enrolment subjects including maths and science. In the Western Cape, completion hovered between 68% and 75% for most subjects with Gauteng not doing much better with 67% completion for English and 80% for its physical science curriculum.
In October last year, the department told Parliament that based on analysis of household survey data, at least 50% of youths completed grade 12 in the last few years.
“An alternative method of comparing the number of matric passes for a particular year to the 18-year-old population of the same year suggests that the figure could be as high as 56%
School governing bodies (SGBs) have expressed concern that high school pupils may have faced the most pressure to drop out of school during the lockdown period, sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic in SA.
SGB federation Fedsas chair Jaco Deacon expressed concern that increased social pressures, government complacency, and the devastation left by the pandemic, could have greatly diminished the school-going population in 2020.
But despite this, Fedsas was also optimistic that the matric class of 2020 would have been the least impacted due to the extra work government, civil society and the media put into assisting the lockdown matrics.
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“There is an expected proportion of the matrics every year who may not appear in these results because maybe they got sick, among other reasons, and we tend to see those numbers come back after the supplementary exam results in June,” said Deacon. “But granted, pupils will have faced many challenges during the 2020 school year.”
The gap between well-resourced public and private schools and the poorest public schools was expected to have widened as a result of government’s weaknesses in delivering support and resources to the latter.
Equal Education (EE), the non-governmental organisation which had to force the department to give schools water and sanitation through the courts, pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect storm for an unprecedented drop-out rate.
The longer learners remained out of school, the higher the likelihood of them dropping out, it said. This was especially true for learners who were already at risk of dropping out before the Covid-19 pandemic. Learners were not short of demotivators last year as the pandemic related lockdown also coincided with mass-scale financial losses for families, deaths of teachers, parents and fellow learners.
According to EE, learning losses could be hugely demotivating to learners. This was especially so if peers were able to continue learning during school closures. The increase in stress levels put learners at greater risk of dropping out.
Where families are faced with increased economic pressures, higher grade learners may feel compelled to work to support their families and drop out of school.
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This is why it is crucial for the government to contact learners at risk of dropping out or those who didn’t return to school last year, to encourage them to return to school or continue learning from home with the support of the school.
A survey conducted by major teacher unions late last year found 30% of schools said that they had lost all contact with some learners and families while schools were closed.
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