School dropout crisis in Northern Cape municipality

Report finds that only half the learners who start primary school reach high school, and of these only 15% pass matric in the Joe Morolong Local Municipality

By Marecia Damons

24 January 2023

Zero Dropout Campaign report highlighted the situation at two schools in the Northern Cape where learner dropout rates are high. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Only half the learners who start primary school make it to high school in the Northern Cape’s Joe Morolong Local Municipality. And of the learners who make it to high school, just 15% matriculate.

These appalling statistics were revealed in a report released on Thursday by the Zero Dropout Campaign. ​The findings are based on data gathered by the Campaign, as well as in-depth interviews with school staff, learners, families of the learners and community members conducted in 2022.

The researchers, led by Dr Andrew Hartnack, looked at the causes of learner disengagement and dropout at two Northern Cape no-fee schools in particular, Kgoro Intermediate School and Dithaba High (the names of the schools were changed for the report).

Kgoro Intermediate has eight teachers for its 263 learners: 107 are in grade 7, 88 in grade 8, and 68 in grade 9. In 2022, at least 30 learners in the grade 7 class were repeating the year. The school was initially built to accommodate half the number of children they now admit. The classrooms are overcrowded.

The report stated that many learners at Kgoro have to leave by 2:30pm, often to go do household chores like herding livestock and gathering water.

Meanwhile at Dithaba High, there are 24 teachers for 679 learners: 341 in grade 10, 178 in grade 11, and 160 in grade 12. The school is also overcrowded; one of the grades has 49 learners in one class. The recommended class size is 32.

The report says most learners at Dithaba High have already repeated grades. Despite struggling academically, many learners are pushed through the intermediary school and often arrive in grade 10 aged 18 or 19 with serious learning gaps. Only half those who start grade 10 at Dithaba typically matriculate, the report adds.

Researchers also noted that the Department of Basic Education (DBE)’s “National policy pertaining to the programme and promotion requirements of the National Curriculum Statement” often pressures schools into promoting learners, even if they are not ready academically.

According to the report, the norm in the community is that people do not feel the need to finish school. “[Children] don’t see school as the key to a good future,” the report read.

The major contributing factors to the high school dropout rates, according to the the report, are a lack of parental support, especially for children staying alone or with their grandparents as well as teenage pregnancy. Other factors include unsafe journeys to school, pressure to earn an income, and taking risks to get noticed by better-resourced groups (from criminal gangs to sugar daddies).

Speaking at the virtual launch, Coceko Nogoduka, chief director of care and support in schools at the DBE, said that the pandemic had disrupted the already struggling schooling system, losing nearly two years of learning and development.

Nogoduka said there had been a significant rise in pregnancies of children aged between 10 and 14-years-old. Pregnancy was one of the prominent reasons why learners dropout between grades 10 and 12.

She said the department’s policy, launched in 2021, “looks at how we can create a supportive environment for pregnant learners to ensure that they stay in school for as long as possible. And also that after they deliver, they remain engaged, re-enter school, and are able to continue their education.”

Nogoduka said, “Children don’t just drop out of the schooling system. It’s a process that often starts with disengagement and early warning signs.”

She said the department and organisations working to mitigate dropouts, should focus on creating supportive environments within schools which would help to identify issues early.

Nogoduka said the department had developed a “learner support agent” programme to assist struggling learners. “The vision is that the person will provide first-line kind of social support to the learner. They will refer them to [for example] Social Development or NGOs in the area to help them remain in school,” she said.

Richard Masemola, principal at Emshukantambo Secondary in Soweto, said at the launch that in most cases teachers were unaware of the learners’ circumstances. “We don’t visit homes and we don’t know where these children come from. When they don’t show up to school, then we start to ask questions. But even then, it’s at the tail end.”

The Northern Cape education department did not respond to our requests for comment. Spokesperson for the Northern Cape Department of Education Geoffrey van der Merwe promised to respond to GroundUp’s questions once he had received approval from the department.