RIGHT OF REPLY | Elijah Mhlanga: Missing learners - systems are already in place to monitor dropouts

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Systems to monitor school drop outs are in place, argues the author. (File)
Systems to monitor school drop outs are in place, argues the author. (File)
PHOTO: Getty/Gallo Images

Elijah Mhlanga rebuffs claims that the department of education's system are broken, or require fixing when it comes to data collection.

There is no question that accurate data gathering and analysis is a critical enabler to uplift the national education sector.

There is also no question that there are many challenges to achieving this, especially in one of the largest service delivery sectors in the country. However, an opinion column published on News24 entitled "Missing learners and shaky data: Why data collection systems need to be fixed" is inaccurate regarding the basic education sector's information systems and does not acknowledge the extent and national scale of the data systems already in operation in the sector. The article also uses the example of a single school to comment on a situation that is far more complex, and in which far more work has already been done, than the column suggests.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) would like to provide a more balanced perspective by contributing the following insights: The research mentioned in the column was conducted at a single school, in one province. This does not constitute a reasonable basis for the much wider conclusions reached about the state of South Africa's basic education data systems generally in the sector as large as this, which manages over 25 000 schools, over 13.5 million learners and over 500 000 staff.

The column recommends the usage of the so called "warning system" based on Microsoft excel to monitor the dropout. It fails to acknowledge the integrated management information systems utilised by the sector. This may indicate the failure of the authors to understand the complexity and sheer size of the education.

Data gathered in all nine provinces 

There is a comprehensive set of data management systems that the DBE has put in place, and which are managed through the Department's EMIS sections at the national and provincial departments, to enable school data management and administration, support functional schools and also forms part of the data collection from schools. This supports the DBE's vision for an integrated Education Information System to collect data from a single source system at institutional level, providing a single entry point of truth, to ensure consistency of data insights for the department and minimising duplicate reporting.

Reporting systems are therefore built on top of the operational administration system, the South African School Administration and Management System (SA-SAMS) at an institutional level, for use at both provincial and national level for planning and decision-making.

South Africa has been a leader on the continent in successfully doing away with collecting school data in an aggregated survey fashion to now fully institutionalising a school administration system and being able to collect unit-level data of individual learners.

The authors' claims that DBE relies on aggregated pupil datasets nowadays are inaccurate. This would have been true over 10 years ago but certainly not in this day and age. 

The data used for reporting is gathered in eight provinces from SA-SAMS, while Western Cape uses its CEMIS system for the same purpose. The SA-SAMS is a tool maintained by the DBE and made available to schools free of charge, specifically designed to assist the schools with their data management, school administration, school management, reporting and policy implementation. This provides schools with a mechanism that enables them to manage records of pupil enrolment, pupil attendance, reasons for absenteeism, pupil academic performance and reports, and many other functions. The article published ignores the role that SA-SAMS plays in providing a platform to schools, to capture and monitor pupil attendance and by implication monitoring, and ultimately diminishing pupils dropping out.

READ | IN-DEPTH: Basic education during Covid-19 - 'We will feel the effect for years to come' - expert

The individual school data and, importantly unit-level pupil information from SA-SAMS is made available to and visualised on the Data-Driven Districts (DDD) dashboard in a district, provincial and national format complying to and subject to privacy controls, to monitor the performance of certain programmes, and linked to trends/patterns, e.g., between learner attendance/non-attendance and academic performance. The DDD programme is a DBE-led programme, implemented in provinces that form an important part of the department's efforts to improve the overall quality of and ability to access, visualise and interpret education data that schools have already captured on SA-SAMS for their own administration purpose. It strives to put data and insight into the hands of education officials to enable data quality improvements, monitoring of learning, and data-driven interventions that help to improve learning outcomes. It was unfortunate that the DBE was not approached by the authors as the article creates an impression that a government-led partnership occurs without government involvement which is completely inaccurate and rather ludicrous. 

School, pupil and educator data is collated at the provincial level in the provincial data warehouses and in the national database, via the Learner Unit Record Information and Tracking System (LURITS), where learner movement can be tracked within and across provinces respectively. This is extremely valuable when tracking learners, not only to identify the path the learners followed but also to be enhanced on, to monitor dropout of learners on a wider platform.

Thousands leave the schooling system every year 

A recent report released by the DBE, dated 16 May 2022 on the "Inaccuracies in Zero Dropout's op-ed on school participation trends" addresses how this is done and is being improved on. Furthermore, the DBE also released a detailed report, "Pandemic-related losses contact time across seven provinces according to SA-SAMS data" based on data analysed that was captured on SA-SAMS. 

The authors refers to the case of two secondary school students who seemed to drop out during the difficult context of the pandemic. The ages of the two students are not given, though this is absolutely relevant in terms of the obligations of government and society, and hence in terms of what our data systems should pay special attention to.

The South African Schools Act requires children to attend school up to the year in which they turn 15. Here South Africa has a success rate of around 99%. The problems lie with older youths. Every year some 400 000 leave the schooling system, nearly all at the secondary level, without obtaining a Matric qualification or anything equivalent in, for instance, a college.

As explained in the annual Grade 12 examination reports, this number has been declining over time, and currently the extent to which young South Africans successfully complete twelve years of education is roughly on a par with what is seen in other middle income countries. We of course want to improve the situation further, and the National Development Plan has targets in this regard.

The two learners the authors refer to are thus part of a much larger problem rooted in the inability of many learners to succeed academically, but also barriers arising out of poverty. To suggest, as the article does, that this complex problem can easily be resolved by fixing school data problems is naïve. Those data problems, which exist but not in the way explained in the article, must of course be addressed. Yet this is a small part of a much larger national question on the life trajectories of our youths.

READ | South African children have lost 1.3 years of schooling due to Covid-19

An equally important point relates to scale of use, and improvement of the school administration system that the DBE provides. In provinces outside Western Cape, SA-SAMS is used by more than 23 000 schools, with data representing more than 12 million learners. Through and in conjunction with SA-SAMS, a lot of the challenges noted in the column already have improvement actions in place. These actions include, among others, the rigorous updating of SA-SAMS to ensure alignment to policy updates, school functionality and data management needs, as well as the capacity support provided to schools in the form of regular training by the department, to ensure schools are able to use SA-SAMS effectively, and at no cost.

The strategy of not burdening schools to recapture data on various systems and embedding a single source data system for their own administration purpose which also acts as a data collection system, alleviates the administrative load on school administrators, educators and school management teams when having to submit data to the province or DBE for reporting. The implication of the DBE including duplicate pupil records are negated by the fact that there are embedded processes within the province and at the national level by utilising the provincial data warehouses and LURITS where duplicate learners are identified and addressed.

Systems are not broken

Various validations and functionalities available within the DBE systems help to validate data collected from schools, and the quality of this data is improved over time, which ensures data administrators improve the quality of their school's data uploads.

When SA-SAMS data is aggregated and made available to principals, school management teams and district officials via the DDD dashboard for easy visualisation, it equips these management officials to run key interventions in support of learner outcomes and are also able to flag where learners are at risk. One example is the early warning dropout functionality on the DDD Dashboard, which - in line with education policy on attendance - flags learners with extended absences to the school management team for action. Another example is the dashboard's Learner Intervention Planning functionality, which flags learners needing interventions such as remediation to increase their likelihood of success.  

These examples are just a few of the many measures already in place, and which the DBE continues to refine and build upon. While SA-SAMS already covers 99% of public schools usage for data reporting in eight provinces, programmes like the DDD continue to grow in use across the provinces and the DBE is further driving a project to modernise and improve the existing SA-SAMS system to as close to a real-time system as possible, and considerable resources and efforts have already been made for the projects successful realisation.

Clearly DBE's system are not broken, or require fixing as it is evident that the DBE has robust systems in place that are managed at multiple levels for implementation, monitoring and reporting, coupled with rigorous plans to maximise what has worked to address the challenges that still exist and to improve on the electronic systems, processes and change management going forward.

- Elijah Mhlanga is the chief director of Communications and media liaison at the department of education

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