AS South Africa’s matriculants started sitting for their final examinations this week, we were left distressed after discovering the high school dropout rate continues to hover at frighteningly alarming levels.
Out of the 62 751 Free State learners who enrolled for Grade One in 2002 and should ordinarily be writing their school-leaving exams this year, only 28 300 are doing so.
This means 34 451 or 54.9 percent of the pupils in the province dropped out of school or to lower grades before they could sit for their matric exams this year.
The disturbing situation in the Free State mirrors the crisis at national level, with more than half of the 1 168 581 learners who started Grade One at schools across South Africa in 2002 not reaching Grade 12 this year.
Reasons for the high dropout rate are as old as the trend.
They can range from teen pregnancy to poverty, illness or death, but we believe the biggest driver of the dropout rate is simply the failure to appreciate the importance of education.
A matric certificate means a lot, but most learners don’t realise that until after they have dropped out of school.
The reality only hits them hard when they find out how many doors are slammed shut in their faces because they didn’t finish high school.
South Africa is already battling a huge unemployment crisis, so you can imagine the commotion when high school dropouts are pitted against college and university graduates in the hunt for jobs.
And, of course, we are aware we cannot read into the dropout rate without correlating it with the country’s unacceptably high repetition rate.
In 2009, on average nine percent of learners enrolled at schools across South Africa were repeating the grade they were in the previous year.
Research has also shown that in 2007 a third of all children at school had repeated a grade.
This, experts say, occurs as a result of teachers in the higher grades trying to deal with learners who have failed to master basic skills in primary school but who have nonetheless progressed from grade to grade.
The percentage of repeaters in Grades 10 and 11 is particularly high as schools “gate-keep” in an attempt to improve their national senior certificate examination results which are publicly reported in a way that results of earlier grades are not.
This, as is always the case, zooms in the light on the entirety of our infamously poor education system which continues to alienate a generation of South Africans.
Needless to say, the cost of a dropout over a lifetime can run into millions of rands in lost wages, increased entitlements and criminal justice spending.
We therefore believe putting brakes to the frightening high school dropout rate is one of the most cost-effective education reforms this country can make.
It’s fine that the government introduced no-fee schools and feeding schemes for the poorest among us so that no one can plead poverty and hunger for staying out of school.
But keeping children in high school is not that easy and straightforward.
Young people – poor and hungry or not – do not wake up one morning suddenly deciding to give up on education.
It is usually a harrowing decision reached after years of frustrating academic or emotional struggle.
The early-warning approach is therefore worth considering seriously.
There are always clear early indicators that can predict the learners most likely to drop out – including poor attendance, behaviour problems and failure in either mathematics or English.
Hence easier access to learner academic and behavioural records will allow teachers and administrators to detect quickly which students are struggling and at risk of dropping out.
But early-warning and other systems cannot work alone as long as parents and guardians leave it to the state to ensure their children stay in school until they finish Grade 12, even if they are to ultimately fail the matric exams.
It’s such a shame when learners give up before reaching the finish line.
Parents and guardians ought to make the education of their young ones the purpose of their own living.
Life has little mercy for those who shun knowledge.
So let’s keep children in school and bring back the dropouts before we condemn them to hopeless futures.