The global meme "building back better" certainly applies to South Africa if we are to achieve a sustainable and resilient recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. We cannot simply rebuild the system with the same flaws.
In our schooling system, building back better requires us to face head-on a major constraint to economic development and greater equality, namely the high prevalence of learner dropout. Half of people living in South Africa live below the poverty line of R1 268 per month with little opportunity to work themselves out of it - the unemployment rate was more than 30% in the third quarter of 2020. It was sobering that a full 10% of the population joined the lines for the special Covid-19 grant of R350. Enabling children to complete school is one of the most powerful strategies to break the cycles of poverty and marginalisation.
Before the pandemic, around two out of five children who started Grade 1 dropped out before completing matric. A major contributing factor was disruption in their homes, schools, and communities that caused disengagement. For many South African learners, crisis is nothing new. School closures, absent teachers, crumbling infrastructure, and struggles to catch up to the curriculum have kept them from schooling before.
Impact of disruptions
Yet in 2020, things got worse. Protracted school closures and the economic impact of the pandemic amplified the type of disruptions that usually lead to dropout. When schools closed last year, many learners lost their connection to learning and the nutritional and emotional safety nets that these spaces provide.
According to NIDS-CRAM Wave 1, half of households reported running out of money to buy food in April. And with schools closed, most learners lost out on around 40% of typically scheduled school days and many lost access to free school meals. This made it all the more challenging for vulnerable learners - who were already struggling to stay on track - to keep up with their schooling.
In December, the Director-General of the Department of Basic Education Mathanzima Mweli, noted that, "... about 15% of learners could not be accounted for in the system", when schools reopened after the 2020 lockdowns. Whether these learners would have dropped out anyway, we simply don't know.
To implement a coordinated national response to dropout, we must confront the true extent of school dropout. Therein lies the first hurdle.
We do not have complete datasets tracking learners' progression over the course of their schooling journey. Although the Learner Unit Record Information and Tracking System (LURITS) tries to address this problem, it has gaps and inaccuracies, largely because of how data is managed at school-level and how that data is reported to higher levels in the education system.
Researchers have found that some learner records are completely untraceable, making it difficult to know whether these learners had changed schools, moved to a different province, exited the public school system, or dropped out. These findings are detailed in the Zero Dropout Campaign's annual publication on the state of dropout in South Africa, due to be released in February 2021.
In the long run, we need to dedicate time and resources to improving learner-level data collection systems that can track academic performance, behaviour, and chronic absenteeism (ABCs), enabling us to flag young people most at risk of dropping out. Through effective referral systems, learners who show signs of disengagement can receive appropriate psychosocial support.
It will take time before we see a marked difference in the dropout trend. However, there are incremental changes we can all make now - as a society. This is possible, even as the pandemic threatens to once again disrupt schooling, our learners, and our communities.
As we gear up for the new academic year, we must build resilient systems of support around learners - in homes, schools, and communities to buffer the impact of ongoing disruptions. Schools can work with social and community partners to make this a reality through the measures we mention below.
The starting point is to track absenteeism more consistently. We must keep better records of learner attendance when schools reopen for the 2021 academic year. When schools recommenced in July 2020, most of them experienced absenteeism of between 10% and 25% as compared to the normal 2% on an average day. Learners did not return to school for a multitude of reasons, including demotivation, concerns about contracting Covid-19, caregiving responsibilities, and trying to access social grants.
In many schools, teachers and principals have already begun to communicate more intentionally with parents and caregivers, through home visits, phone calls and WhatsApp messages, encouraging them to send their children back to school.
This approach is encouraging and reflects strategies used in the civil society sector to track learners who were chronically absent, even before the pandemic. For instance, in Paarl and Stellenbosch, the Khula Development Group (KDG) deploys "Dropout Catchers" tasked with following up on children who are absent from school by visiting them at home.
Dropout Catchers are typically women who are known to the communities in which they operate. They determine the root cause of the child's absenteeism - whether related to school or home - and try to find appropriate solutions.
This is why we need to strengthen the caregiver-educator relationship with open channels of communication. Our NPO partners noticed that many schools had no way of communicating with caregivers during lockdown, and that many caregivers were not receiving or collecting learning materials for their children. We have found that when teachers and communities work together to support learners - creating safe spaces both in and outside of school, they are better supported to withstand disruptions to their schooling.
Some educators have found innovative ways to connect with their learners outside of school, offering to give them support and tutorials at night when data is cheaper or free.
NPOs such as the National Association of Child and Youth Care Workers (NACCW) used WhatsApp groups to stay in contact with learners during lockdown, using group activities to check-in on their wellbeing, games to keep them engaged, and safe digital spaces for them to talk about their feelings.
In other communities, street corners were repurposed as "homework hotspots" or reading spaces where social distancing could be observed and learners could ask for help from a caring adult.
All of these strategies will be more effective as part of an intentional dropout prevention plan, led by schools.
It is possible to "build back better". But the actions we take now will determine whether we succeed, or if this tagline becomes another cliche in the development vocabulary.