The Department of Basic Education has published new data on the drop-out rate at South African schools and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a parliamentary presentation on Tuesday (6 October), the department said that critics typically compare grade 1 enrolments to National Senior Certificate (matric) passes in the November examinations and arrive at drop-out figures of between 37% and 42%.
However, the department said that this is not an accurate reflection of the actual drop-out rate as the supplementary June NSC exams and other equivalent qualifications are not considered in this calculation.
In addition, the department said that the grade 1 enrolment figures do not account for grade repetition – with grade repetition in grade 1 and grade 2 estimated to be about 17% and 12% respectively. Other external factors such as child deaths are also not included in this calculation, the department said.
The actual drop-out rate
Citing data from Statistics South Africa, the department said that an analysis of household survey data indicates that in recent years at least 50% of youths complete grade 12.
“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%.
“But whichever method one uses there has been a consistent improvement over time.” The department said that females are also considerably more likely to complete Grade 12 than males.
Using a combination of its own calculations as well as StatsSA data, the department indicated that the ‘survival rate’ per 1,000 students was around 520, meaning that the effective drop-out rate is closer to 48%.
The data shows that the higher grades typically had the highest number of drop-outs. Grade 11 had the largest percentage of dropouts (24.08%) followed by Grade 10 (14.84%).
However, the department acknowledged that there are problems with its own administrative data as it was unreliable or incomplete for parts of the system.
An independent analysis could only be conducted using 7 provinces and only for certain grades.
In addition, estimates of dropout varied considerably between the two years of data that were being used (2010/11 and 2015/16).
“Successful completion of Grade 12 must continue to increase, but South Africa’s secondary school completion is not unusual among developing countries.
“According to UNESCO, the upper secondary education completion rate for South Africa has been similar to that of middle-income countries – slightly above those of Tunisia, Egypt and Uruguay, but a bit below that of Indonesia.”
Reasons for dropping out
The department said that grade repetition may actually be a cause of dropping out of school.
“Repetition discourages children about their educational prospects and makes them relatively old for their grade, so that opting out of school might become socially or economically more attractive.
“But grade repetition could have a positive impact on educational outcomes of children if it is accompanied by effective remedial support,” it said.
The department said it is difficult to actually measure the causal impact of repetition on educational outcomes because those who repeat are typically already academically weaker and therefore more likely to drop out of school than non-repeaters.
Despite the uncertainty around the impact of grade repetition on dropout, the department said that two more important points can be made about repetition:
- Firstly, grade repetition should primarily be understood as a symptom of weak learning rather than as a cause of educational problems such as dropout.
- Secondly, high rates of grade repetition lead to education system inefficiencies such as higher class sizes and more “person-years” of public spending on education to achieve the same outcomes.
Other possible reasons for drop-outs, as outlined in international literature include:
- Household poverty and income shocks (although non-fee schooling has mitigated this somewhat);
- Household labour and family responsibilities;
- Health problems;
- These factors are interlinked and dropping out is often understood as a series of circumstances rather than an isolated event.
The department also touched on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, however, it noted that it does not yet have any data to indicate what dropout will occur after 2020.
However, it said that there are reasons to expect short-term and long-term negative impacts on dropout.
Possible short-term impacts on children in grades 10-12 include:
- Lost school time could discourage youths about their chances of completing NSC or lead to school pushout;
- Some international evidence that time out of school leads to other activities and to pregnancies, which in turn could impact on dropout.
“Evidence shows low-risk of Covid-19 to children and that school re-openings are not causing an unacceptable increase in virus spread,” the department said.
Possible long-term impacts include:
- Local and international studies are predicting large and unequal losses in learning due to Covid-19 related school closures;
- The NIDS-CRAM survey is showing unequal losses of school attendance and remote learning opportunities by socio-economic status;
- International studies show that these types of large learning losses are predictive of lifelong outcomes, including educational attainment and labour market performance.