We have just celebrated the 2021 matrics who have passed and made it through one of the toughest years of education. The matrics of 2020 and 2021 deserve the highest praise, making it through such unpredictable years, and yet as we see the smiles and newspaper articles discussing the matriculants and pass rates, I can’t help to think about the reported 750 000 children who have dropped out of school.
Yes, you’ve read that right. It is estimated that over 750 000 school children have dropped out of schools since the pandemic and yet, we have heard nothing about how to get them back into the classroom. I was told in a meeting that there is nothing we can do and we must count that generation as a loss. I seethed just from the very thought that we have not included these kids in any type of intervention so that they can have a future. Furthermore, that nobody is thinking of the long-term consequence of nearly a million children who will one day have their own families to support, not having an education and feeding into the system of poverty and social ills. What’s worse is that this is all preventable.
I don’t blame the children for dropping out. The reality is that the pandemic just highlighted the many inequalities in our education system. Let’s just take the Western Cape for example, the schools on the Cape Flats and the townships are overcrowded – one class can have 50 to 70 children in it with one teacher, and no aides or assistants. Let’s just think about that for a moment. Practically, this means teachers can’t give one-on-one attention to children. Many of the children who are sitting in the classroom also come from hard places and have experienced trauma. They have not had a good start in life which means you often have children with attention issues, learning difficulties, behavioural challenges and who need good evidence-based psychosocial support.
Furthermore, in the district that our NGO works in, there is only one educational psychologist for 10 schools which means that for a child to be assessed, each school can only provide 2 to 3 names for the entire year. But that’s not even the crazy part, if these children require remedial classes or need to be transferred to a skill-based school after being assessed, they can’t get in or access those resources because these schools are few and far between and have a long waiting list. So, what do we do with these children when the system that they find themselves in is not equipped to address all the complex issues they are facing?
Now we add in the pandemic, and we have schools who are not equipped to go online. We have children who don’t have access to online resources or technology. To make matters worse, these schools re-opened on a rotational calendar because of social distancing and each week there are different days that they can go to school, meaning more lost tuition time for many learners.
On the other hand we drive not even 15 minutes up the road and we see schools that run at full capacity. In fact, my sons did not miss a day of school in 2021, only if they, themselves, were sick. If one of my sons need to be assessed, I can get a note with the person’s name who I can contact. My eldest son’s school has a school counsellor, speech therapist, remedial or learner support teachers and so many additional resources so that we can ensure all children can reach their own potential. Now, obviously this comes at an extra expense which again highlights the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who don’t. But surely a quality education is a right for every single child?
The inequality is vast and ever-growing and we know this is not good for our country. It allows for more civil unrest to occur as when we have a high unemployed youth rate, we have angry, hungry people who continue to be oppressed with little hope for their future. So this is a very serious problem. A problem that our government and ministers need to address as soon as possible.
So what do we do? We know that for children to reach their full potential and step out of the poverty trap, they need an education but also, they need an environment in which to thrive, and one primary caregiver that can motivate, nurture, and support them. Lastly, that caregiver needs support themselves. Therefore, we need a whole-systems approach when working with children which includes their families. We need to be providing psychosocial support to our children so that they can develop the emotional and social skills to build resilience and grow problem-solving skills.
We need to be supporting the NGOs who are partnering with schools to provide extra classes to improve maths, reading, science and who can give psychosocial support to the children who need it. We need to be supporting teachers by paying them a decent salary and giving them the support they need to be able to give attention to the learners who are at-risk of dropping out. This means our intervention plans also need to be equipped to handle the many adversities and challenges that our children are facing in a practical way.
We need to end the rotational calendar of learners. Children need routine and stability and having a different timetable every week does not work. We need to be holding the powers that be accountable for not giving our children the right environment to be able to thrive.
A whole systems approach is needed to ensure all children can thrive and stay in school. This means collaboration and partnerships. This means all the systems that play a part in a child’s life – welfare, health, education, justice – need to be playing their part. Otherwise, we are just setting up our children to fail and stand the risk of seeing another 750 000 children drop out of school this coming year.
We can’t do this alone, we need everyone to do their part. What is yours?