Why Children Are Still Dropping Out Of School In Their Millions

By Peter Burdin

Frank Odwesso Photo: Frank Odwesso

When ESSA was founded just two years ago one of its very first founding principles was to improve educational outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa.

The team behind the project was struck by the millions of African children out of school as well as the high numbers who started school but then fell out of the system early and without any qualifications.

South Africa is a good example of this high drop-rate. In spite of spending more on education than any other country on the continent some 45% of children never stay in school long enough to take the end-of-school matric exam. The Zero School Drop Out Initiative has been drilling down into the reasons why and has come up with some disturbing factors behind this stubborn failure of the education system.

More than half of these early leavers in South Africa are unemployed. That’s more than seven million young people out of work and without any skills or training. This compounds the paradox of employers facing skills shortages while youth unemployment remains high at 52.4% almost twice the national average of 26.7% unemployment.

Across the continent some 25% of African youth are still illiterate according to the African Development Bank, despite a rise in primary school enrolment from 60% in 2000 to 77% in 2011.

In South Africa in the run up to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 ANC activists created an advertising campaign based on a “monopoly-style”  board game in which the country’s different ethnic groups travelled through school to reach the prize of a university place. If you were an African child in the game you would be impeded on most squares you landed on with forfeits like “your school has no books –miss a turn” or “you are attacked while walking ten miles to get to school – go back five spaces”.

A quarter-of-a-century on and many of those impediments to education seem as real as ever. The Zero School Drop Out survey reveals that more than two million South African children go to bed and wake up hungry. According to the General Household Data 13% of children report going hungry “sometimes, often or always” in South Africa.

For some the only meal they’ll get for the rest of the day is from their school’s feeding scheme. And they are the lucky ones who actually make it to school. Some children still have to walk many kilometres to get to school and back each day. By the time they reach school they are often too tired to learn and sit in over crowded classrooms with as many as sixty other children in the class.

Perhaps it’s a strike day when the children have to run the classes themselves because the teacher isn’t present. A Centre for Development and Enterprise in 2017 estimated that children lose about 40% of learning time every year because of teachers skipping classes.

Then there’s bullying and violence to contend with. A survey in 2015 found that 48% of Grade 5 learners in no-fee schools in South Africa reported being bullied weekly.

Another study notes that extreme levels of sexual violence are experienced by girls not only while travelling to school, but also in the classroom – by teachers and classmates.

According to Chiara Baumann who heads up the Zero School Drop Out Initiative it is a collection of all these experiences that make getting an education as hard as ever. Chiara sees dropping out not as an active choice but the culmination of  many of these negative factors that work together to push children out of the school system.

The Initiative recognizes that changing these deep-seated constraints to getting an education is challenging, but it hopes more can be done inside school hours to address them.


To read more of Chiara Baumann’s full account please go to this article republished in the Daily Maverick.