Is the matric pass rate an accurate measure of the health of our schooling system?

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The high prevalence of learner dropout has largely been a ‘hidden crisis’ until the pandemic brought the issue into sharp focus. (Kyo Azuma/ Unsplash)
The high prevalence of learner dropout has largely been a ‘hidden crisis’ until the pandemic brought the issue into sharp focus. (Kyo Azuma/ Unsplash)

The matric pass rate is traditionally considered a measure of the health of our schooling system and a key performance indicator by which the Minister of Basic Education is held to account.

But what does this statistic actually tell us about learners’ pathways through school, particularly during a pandemic?

"Before the pandemic, around 2 out of 5 children who started Grade 1 dropped out before completing matric as a consequence of disruptions in their homes, schools and communities," says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

The 3.4 million

"The matric pass rate only tells us about the percentage of learners who wrote their exams and passed, but it does not tell us what percentage of the cohort of learners who started in Grade 1 actually made it to matric and passed," Mansfield explains.

Many learners who leave school without a National Senior Certificate find themselves among the 3.4 million young people who are not in any kind of education, employment, or training (classified as ‘NEET’).

The high prevalence of learner dropout has largely been a ‘hidden crisis’ until the pandemic brought the issue into sharp focus.

"Not only were there reports of higher than normal rates of absenteeism when schools reopened in July last year, [but] many learners in lower quintile schools found it very difficult to learn from home because they didn’t have access to technology, data, or a safe and quiet place to study," says Mansfield.

Also see: One step forward, one step back: Covid-19 threatens an already fragile education system

School dropout: The Pandemic Edition

The mandatory Covid-19 school closures and economic impact of the pandemic have amplified the type of disruptions that typically lead to disengagement and learner dropout.

Mansfield says that when schools are closed, many learners lose not only a physical space for learning, but also an essential source of support, socialisation, and nourishment.

The longer a child is away from school and disconnected from learning, the greater the chances of disengagement and dropout, especially if the relationship to schooling was strained or tenuous to begin with.

"To better understand the impact of the pandemic on school dropout, we approached researchers to analyse available datasets and grade repetition trends so that we could see where the risks lie for learners, and what needs to be done to protect them," Mansfield points out.

How we can recover, strengthen, and build

In addition, we wanted to illustrate the complexity and variety of Covid-19 experiences beyond the raw data, through detailed interviews with learners, caregivers, and teachers in three provinces.

The culmination of several months of on-the-ground work has come together in a new research report — now available to download on the campaign’s website.

School Dropout: The Pandemic Edition. Building resilience in our schooling system - before and after Covid-19 looks at how the pandemic has intensified vulnerabilities to dropout. But it also explores how we can recover, strengthen, and build preparedness in our schooling system.

"We will delve deeper into the findings of this report with veteran education expert Mary Metcalfe during the virtual launch of the publication on 25 February 2021," says Mansfield.

To build back better, we need to factor the issue of learner dropout into policy and planning frameworks and make dropout a key performance indicator.

We also need to dedicate time and resources to improving learner-level data collection systems that can track academic performance, behaviour, and chronic absenteeism, enabling us to flag young people most at risk of dropping out. Through effective referral systems, learners who show signs of disengagement can receive appropriate psychosocial support.

"Instead of focusing all our attention on the matric results each year, we should also set targets for dropout reduction so that more learners who start their schooling journey are able to finish," concludes Mansfield.

Submitted to Parent24 by the Zero Dropout Campaign.

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