This op-ed first was published in the Sunday Times.
At the start of a new school year, learner dropout rates are now higher, and school attendance lower, than it has been in 20 years – this as schools continue to do their best with what has been available to them in the face of COVID-19 challenges. The magnitude of this increase is illustrated by the fact that, during the pandemic, an additional 500,000 children dropped out of school. Addressing this challenge has been predominantly laid at the feet of teachers, but a community response is needed instead if we hope to see an improvement in 2022.
The dropout rate is sobering for a few reasons. School attendance is crucial because it is the entry point into the domain of opportunities to learn within the school system. When this is done well, it leads to school engagement, or school attachment – where the school becomes a place where the learner wants to be. When school attendance is compromised due to school-related factors or social circumstances, it is likely to lead to school disengagement, a weakening of school attachment ties and learning dispositions, and eventual school apathy and drop-out. This is what we refer to as the malicious cycle of de-schooling. It has negative effects for the learners who drop out, their families, and eventually for society as a whole.
The opposite cycle can also occur. As learners attend and participate in school activities over time, and where the school focuses on increasing and improving opportunities to learn, they develop a learning disposition that involves a behavioral, academic, and an attitudinal orientation towards schooling. This forms the basis for learner success throughout the schooling years, as well as further studies at higher institutions of learning. We call this the virtuous cycle of schooling.
All eyes on the role of teachers
When looking at what we call the three Cs of education namely Curriculum, Care and Community, it’s important to recognise that teachers are experts in curriculum. They are hired first and foremost because they are learning experts. In the last two years, however, teachers have been uniquely burdened with the responsibility of the other two Cs in response to COVID-19. They have spent significant time in the school day as safety officers, regulating social distancing and hand sanitising, taking temperatures and keeping an eye out for flu-like symptoms. On top of that, many of the legitimate measures put in place to manage the pandemic have disrupted the lives of children. According to a World Health Organisation article published in January 2021, “depression is one of the leading causes of illness
and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in people aged 15–19 years.” A study titled “Youth emotional well-being during the COVID-19-related lockdown in South Africa” conducted by Gibson Mudiriza and Ariane De Lannoy, revealed a prevalence of depressive symptoms of 72% among the young participants. The responsibility to respond to this heartbreaking trend is usually put on teachers: to firstly recognise the signs that mental wellbeing is compromised and then to know where to refer children who are struggling and suffering – if those referral pathways are in place at all.
Factors such as isolation, food insecurity and fear of losing the household breadwinner, interpersonal violence in the household, poverty, stigma, exclusion, and living in fragile settings – all factors exacerbated by the pandemic, can increase the risk of developing mental health problems in young people. This also forms part of the diverse set of contributors to drop-out rates including adequate nutrition, healthcare, psycho-social support, physical safety, and reliable school transport. In October 2021 President Rhamaposa expressed that he was saddened and concerned to hear how many young people dropped out of school. He challenged teachers specifically to keep school dropout rates below 25% – but, as we have shown, attendance and dropout rates are complex challenges that do not just stem from the classroom environment – therefore cannot be remedied only in the classroom. More simply put, teachers can’t fix everything. Communities of care, including government, are needed to provide the support.
Not only is support needed beyond the classroom given the complex nature of factors, but if we continue to add to the burden of teachers we edge closer to the tipping point where we are risking shifting the focus away from the core purpose of a teacher, namely teaching.
Time to take a teacher’s hand
In order to handle the additional pressures as a result of the pandemic, a community response is important and urgent. Thankfully there are various organisations, educational initiatives and champions within government whose mission it is to provide support to see our children succeed. It is worth seeing where we can all innovate to use existing strategies in our different spaces. One such example is the Zero Dropout Campaign which works alongside schools and collaborates with other non-profit organisations to develop effective strategies for preventing dropout. The Zero Dropout Campaign has designed a straightforward Early Warning System (EWS) tool that “gives educators the power to track warning signs of disengagement, which is a precursor to dropout.” However, it is important to ensure that the responsibility is not once again disproportionately placed on teachers to address this challenge and here the role of civil society is evident. What if other stakeholders could join hands in using similar tools in their afterschool spaces or faith-based organisations to track behaviour change and disengagement? In much the same way, supporting the mental wellbeing of leaners also needs to extend beyond the help from teachers, to help from family and peer groups, community organisations, provision of self-care and coping strategies, helplines, or healthcare in the form of counselling or talk therapy.
Especially after the last two years, our children and our teachers need us. Our teachers are not tired, they are burnt out. We urgently need to protect and help free them up from tasks that aren’t their sole responsibility so they can teach. This is a time where we are going to need all hands on deck and leverage the resilient South African spirit. We need a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder push to support our education system – the children who remain in it and those who have dropped out. This push is likely to rely on partnerships, innovation and accountability and involve government, parents and caregivers, funders, CSI managers, faith-based organisations, community organisations, as well as school and community leaders. These are our schools, our teachers, our children and our future.
By Louise Albertyn and Dr Allistair Witten. Louise Albertyn is Senior Advisor to the UCT Graduate School of Business’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the Education Innovation portfolio. Dr Allistair Witten is Adjunct Associate Professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Together they convene executive education courses to lead innovative partnerships in Education.