A child who left school early was human capital that was lost to the country and the economy, Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy said on Friday.
About 35 percent of children who started school now failed to finish, she said.
This was dramatically more than 1994 where the completion rate for those who enrolled 12 years earlier was 29 percent.
“While we can be happy that we have made strides, 35 percent are lost to the system that we are not adequately understanding and addressing,” Creecy said.
They could not be written off but alternative ways needed to be found to ensure they continued with their education, she said.
“Although the reasons for learners dropping out of school vary, the consequences are the same,” Creecy said.
“They add to the group of unskilled and semi-skilled in our country which is already in surplus.”
The MEC was addressing the Gauteng education department's 4th monitoring and evaluation colloquium underway at the Turffontein Racecourse in Johannesburg.
Teachers, academics and civic organisations were meeting to find ways to stop children leaving school prematurely.
Children who left school early tended towards crime, were often unemployed and suffered more poor health issues, she said.
The most common exit points for drop outs in Gauteng were at Grade 10 and 12. The full impact of failing to finish school had yet to be researched.
While Gauteng was performing better than other provinces, what was not fully understood was who the pupils were who were leaving the system and why they were leaving the system.
“Have we managed to keep more African children?” she asked.
“What proportion of the learners who leave have a pass that enables them to move on?”
Of major concern was that many of the children leaving the system could have and should have completed school.
Some children left school for curricular reasons as they battled and repeatedly failed. In these instances there had to be alternatives where they could have training that would enable them to continue productively.
A second group left school for “community or domestic reasons”.
They left to find a job to support their family, to look after siblings, to look after their own children or because they were pregnant.
There were also drop-outs who stayed at school but who had disengaged with the system and were disruptive.
Others repeatedly failed but kept trying and in some cases eventually passed through the system.
Creecy said she wanted to find better solutions to deal with pupils who were not flowing through school and who needed a different type of education.
A more career-based learning with business involvement was an option.
“We need to identify preventative programmes that can help us to keep these children in education. We need to arm teachers, school managers and parents with an early warning system – based on historical data attendance, achievement or age so steps can be taken to keep learners or give them a workable alternative.”
The colloquium was continuing.