Covid-19 likely to send school dropout rate soaring

17 January 2021 - 00:00 By PREGA GOVENDER
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Director-general of the department of basic education Mathanzima Mweli.
Director-general of the department of basic education Mathanzima Mweli.
Image: Sunday Times/File

Education experts have expressed serious concern over whether 15% of pupils who did not pitch up at government schools last year after Covid-19 disruptions would be returning to class.

Thousands of pupils are expected to have given up on schooling after the lengthy closures last year. The basic education department on Friday confirmed the reopening of schools has been postponed to February 15.

According to official figures, 12.4-million pupils were enrolled at public schools in 2019. 

The director-general of basic education, Mathanzima Mweli, said last month that during meetings with provincial education departments it had emerged that "about 15% of learners could not be accounted for in the system". He said, however, that it was too soon to conclude that this was the number of learners who dropped out as they could return once schools reopened.

Professor Labby Ramrathan of the school of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal said he did not believe these pupils would ever return.

"They may have found a new lifestyle to support themselves and their families and returning to school would be their least interest and not beneficial to them."

The recently retired dean of education at Wits University, professor Felix Maringe, said education officials should visit the homes of pupils who did not return.

"Arrangements for counselling these learners and engaging their families and others in their circles of intimacy need to be prioritised.

"If these things are not done, there is a real chance a sizeable proportion of these learners may be lost permanently from the system."

Stellenbosch University researcher Nic Spaull said the high cost of school closures last year was only beginning to be seen now.

"This includes higher rates of dropout, lower immunisation rates and large learning losses.

"For many children these learning losses cannot be recovered. For those in grades 10 and 11 in 2020 there simply is not enough time to catch up."

Servaas van der Berg, a professor of economics at Stellenbosch University, said rotational teaching made it difficult to get a proper picture of school attendance last year.

"Given past patterns . we expect that most primary school learners who were absent from school in the last part of 2020 will probably return to school, perhaps once the school year gets into full swing, even if they are then likely to repeat."

But he said in higher grades, many who have repeated before and were absent at the end of last year are less likely to go back.

"Only 42% of children in grade 10 are at the appropriate age, with 21% being at least three years too old. Failing the grade is likely to lead to a lot of dropout."

Commenting on the department's three-year plan to catch up on teaching time lost last year, Van der Berg said this would require a sense of urgency and focus "that many of our schools unfortunately lack".

"It is likely that it would be mainly schools serving poorer parts of our population that would fail to catch up. In the next few years this will exacerbate the high repetition and dropout rates that we still experience in many schools."

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Van der Berg said it was going to be a challenge to replace teachers who had died of Covid-related complications, who number about 1,500 so far.

At least 238 matric markers also contracted the coronavirus after reporting for duty.

"Naturally, replacing teachers is difficult and it is already hard to replace the 25,000 teachers retiring every year."

Maringe said teacher deaths were "hugely saddening" and the government should prioritise teachers in its vaccination strategy.

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, said a "significant" number of teachers had died and that replacing them was not going to be easy.

"People are not going to be eager to go out and teach in the rural areas where there are people dying. If it's a scarce-skilled subject, we are going to have a problem."

With schools now set to reopen next month, a random survey by the Sunday Times has found that in five provinces 11,818 grade 1 pupils and 20,533 grade 8 pupils have not yet been placed.

Gauteng education department spokesperson Steve Mabona said one of the reasons for pupils being unplaced was parents not accepting placement "because we did not give them their first choice".

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