The missing children: why don't they finish school?
Michelle Jones investigates the stat that nearly 1 in 2 schoolkids drop out with no qualifications.
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Nearly 700 000 matrics will sit down on Monday and put pen to paper on their first final exam.

But a similar number of pupils - nearly 600 000 - also started in Grade 1 12 years ago and have dropped out along the way, with no qualification and likely unemployable.

There has been much criticism in recent years of the national senior certificate - or matric exam as it is more commonly known. Experts have criticised the much publicised release of results as misleading due to the high numbers of pupils who were lost through their years of schooling.

Unfortunately, the reality is that at least one in two young people have absolutely no qualification beyond Grade 9.

The numbers

A total of 688 660 candidates are registered to write the exams this year. Of these, 550 127 are full-time candidates and 138 533 are part-time.
According to Department of Basic Education statistics it is possible to track the numbers of pupils who were enrolled in each grade. At certain point through the past 12 years, there were:
•    1 277 499 pupils in Grade 1 in 2003
•    1 072 780 pupils in Grade 4 in 2006
•    970 902 pupils in Grade 7 in 2009
•    1 103 495 pupils in Grade 10 in 2012
•    834 611 pupils in Grade 11 in 2013

These figures show the steady decrease in pupil numbers through the grades. The increase in numbers in Grade 10 points to the high rate of repetition in this grade which leads to numerous learners choosing to drop out in subsequent years as seen by the dramatic decrease of pupils by Grade 11.

Expert commentary

University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen has criticised the schooling system so harshly he feels that given the choice he would not send his own children to school in South Africa.

He has stated that he can't trust a system that makes it possible for a child to pass Grade 12 with 30% in some subjects and 40% in other subjects and that it frightens him that even though you get 32% in Mathematics and 27% in Physical Science you can still receive an official document that allows you to study towards a
Bachelor's degree at university. He has expressed disbelief that nearly half the kids enrolling in Grade One don't graduate matric.


Economic and education researcher Nic Spaull pointed to the high number of pupils who did not reach matric and the subsequent impact on their lives.
He commented in Africa Check that school reports are not standardised, so cannot be used as proof of any kind of academic achievement prior to matric. This meant that kids who drop out would have no proof of any level of education.

Spaull cited data from the 2011 National Census which showed the unemployment rate for 25- to 35-year-olds who had “less than matric” was 47% in 2011.

Educationist and academic Mary Metcalfe raised concerns about the efficiency of the education system. She has suggested that the Grade 10 exam also be used as a credential and that doing this would take the pressure off the NSC.

Government response

In an effort to tackle high dropout rates, the Department of Basic Education produced the Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy.

After an analysis of the figures, it ascertained the dropout rate before Grade 9 was “extremely low” but that after Grade 9 the dropout figure increases dramatically in Grades 10 and 11.

It was found that an average of 9% of pupils enrolled in schools were repeating the grade they were in the previous year and that this was a strong precursor for dropout.

Much research had been completed about the reasons behind high dropout rates. A combination of factors, including poverty, disability, family structure, social welfare, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and distance from schools, were all found to contribute to pupils choosing to leave school.

The Department of Basic Educationsought to calculate how many school entrants went on to pass matric. It acknowledged that calculating throughput rates using the number of pupils who started in Grade 1 was “significantly misleading” as Grade 1 enrollments were inflated due to the high repetition rates in that grade.

The department preferred to look at Statistics South Africa household survey data which indicated just more than 40 percent of youths had passed matric.

The department recommended increasing the number of young people who passed matric by improving the quality of teaching and learning in earlier grades to provide a solid foundation. It was also recommended that alternate education pathways be developed for pupils who did not reach matric.

Change is coming

Wide-ranging changes to the schooling system have been recommended by a task team set up by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to investigate the standard of the national senior certificate.

The task team concluded the national senior certificate was “not adequate in its current format for all the purposes it is being made to serve”.

Possibly its most significant recommendation was that there was “an urgent need for an appropriate vocational track”.

Other recommendations were that pass requirements be increased and that life orientation be removed from the curriculum.

Education experts and teachers’ unions welcomed the proposals and called for discussions with Motshekga into how the recommendations could best be implemented.

In the meantime, the class of 2014 will continue to write their exams for the next few weeks. Marking is expected to begin on December 1 and results are expected to be announced on January 6, 2015.

Has your child ever been tempted to drop out of school?

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