South African classrooms open again, will the missing million students also return?

South African classrooms open again

The interruption of classes due to the pandemic has increased school dropout in the African country. A group of researchers quantifies the magnitude of the problem that can translate into fewer opportunities to get a job and poorer health in the future

Governments around the world are trying to estimate precisely how many students have dropped out of school as a result of the pandemic. The subject has been the subject of intense debate in South Africa, where it has received much attention when the results of the last school year have been published.

As researchers studying trends in education access and learning outcomes over the past decade, we have been particularly interested in quantifying the extent to which the pandemic has contributed to dropouts. We also want to contribute to a better understanding of the phenomenon so that appropriate measures can be taken to effectively solve the problem.

In a report published at the end of 2021, we tried to start outlining the parameters of the severity of the effects of covid-19 on school attendance. It was a difficult exercise, as much of the necessary data is not yet available.

For this reason, we chose to use data from the National Income Dynamics Study–Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) longitudinal telephone survey, conducted on a sample of representative of South African adults over the age of 18. Data was collected across all five waves between 2020 and 2021. We relied specifically on education-related survey results, and combined them with other surveys to track student attendance at school , such as the General Household Survey.

In our analysis, we calculated that around one million students had not returned to school between April and May 2021. By mid-February of that year, classrooms had partially reopened. From January 31, 2022, students attend daily in person.

Disengagement from school increases the risk that students will drop out permanently. It also has long-term consequences, such as lower participation in higher education and training, fewer lifetime opportunities for employment and income, and poor health.

How many students dropped out of school during the pandemic?

To try to understand how the educational landscape has changed since the pandemic began, we first need to know the situation of school dropouts in the years prior to the health crisis. Using data from the 2017 National Income Dynamics Study and the 2017-2019 General Household Survey, we calculated that 290,000 school-age children did not return to school each year.

From January 31, students attend class five days a week in accordance with the new regulations for level 1 of adapted closure. According to the researchers, this could cause some of those students to rejoin the system.

According to our analysis, the percentage of households with school-age children who do not attend school has almost doubled. The number of students per household who did not attend school has gone from one (in the last years before the pandemic) to 1.32 in November 2020 and 1.86 in April and May 2021. Our team reached the conclusion that, by this last date, just over a million students had stopped attending schools.

We then subtracted the 290,000 children who did not usually return to school in the years before the pandemic, and obtained a figure of an additional 700,000 students who had stopped attending school in April/May 2021.

The 700,000 and 290,000 students belong to slightly different age groups. The 290,000 students who dropped out before the health crisis were overwhelmingly children who were no longer legally required to attend school. In contrast, the additional 700,000 children who had not returned to school by April/May 2021 were still of compulsory school age (7-15 years).

The comparison of our calculations with the enrollment data confirms that what our figures reflect may only be prolonged absenteeism, and not permanent abandonment. The enrollment of students of compulsory school age fell by 19,000 children in 2021, and that of children between 4.5 and 6 years old who were enrolling for the first time fell by 27,000.

Therefore, it is to be expected that many of the 700,000 students who had not returned to class will rejoin the system now that schools reopen daily.

While analyzes of household and enrollment data are important pieces of the puzzle, the ultimate indicator of dropout is achieved by learning about active participation that is deduced from administrative data on daily attendance. This measure is not yet available.

What was the school attendance situation before the pandemic

To situate our analysis of the impact of COVID-19, it is useful to note that, prior to the health crisis, it appeared that South Africa was making progress in its efforts to increase school enrollment and retention in the education system.

According to the 2019 General Household Survey, attendance levels among students of compulsory school age in South Africa exceeded 98%. Our analyzes of 2017 data indicated that almost 100% of children between the ages of six and 15 enrolled in 2016 returned to school the following year.

In addition, analyzes of large-scale national data sets have begun to show significant improvements in math scores, as well as a steady improvement in reading since the mid-2000s.

This points to a systemic improvement in the quality of learning at the country’s basic educational level. All this indicates that students not only enroll, but actively participate, and as a result, learn.

How to keep South African students in the education system

How should the country then respond? First of all, researchers in the education system should clarify what they mean when they talk about school dropout. To enrollment, to prolonged absence, to definitive abandonment? Each of these measures provides different estimates and each method has its limitations.

Second, the country must pay continuous attention to the push and pull factors that influence disengagement, that is, the process by which students gradually experience increasing exclusion from school.

Push factors include poor learning outcomes, high rates, and other barriers that limit access to education. Pull factors include family and social pressures, such as the need to earn an income and increased child-rearing responsibilities.

As parents, teachers, school principals and other stakeholders in education, we must continue to work to keep schools open and keep students engaged

As far as the education sector is concerned, specific responses to the pandemic must include the quantification and resolution of learning gaps and losses. Previous studies have shown that a poor educational background was the biggest contributor to school dropout.

Furthermore, international experience teaches us that learning gaps due to brief interruptions can quickly grow worse if not remedied. Furthermore, data from Nigeria shows that continuous interruptions cause school absenteeism even after schools reopen.

Consequently, frequent disturbances of school activity and prolonged absence of students who remain unanswered will most likely lead to permanent school dropout. As parents, teachers, school principals, and other education stakeholders, we must continue to work to keep classrooms open and students engaged.