09 February 2023 – Open letter to the Department of Basic Education regarding high learner dropouts

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Dear Honourable Minister Matsie Angelina Motshekga,

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) is a public interest law clinic that uses the law as an instrument of justice for poor and marginalised persons. The LRC pursues equality, access to justice, and the recognition and protection of constitutional rights for all through creative and effective solutions, including to address barriers to education. 

The LRC is concerned that nationally, learner dropout remains high. The Department of Basic Education (Department) has consistently reported dropout figures at between 37% and 42% over the past few years. 

In its Annual General Household Survey for learners aged seven to 18, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) includes data on the reasons for non-attendance of educational institutions. The GHS asks households to provide the main reason why a child living in their household does not attend school and offers the following categories as possible responses: no money for fees; poor academic performance; family commitments; education is useless; illness and disability; completed education; working at home; getting to school; and other. 

We are concerned that “other” consistently represents one of the highest recorded reasons for not attending an educational institution. From 2015 to 2019, “other” was the third highest recorded after “no money for fees” and “poor academic performance”, representing between 13% and 17% of learners leaving school. While the GHS of 2020 did not report the reasons for learners not attending school, it was reported that 18% of learners who did not attend school during 2021 did so for “other” reasons. “Other” was the fourth highest reason for learners leaving school after “illness and disability”, “no money for fees” and “poor academic performance”.  

At the end of 2021, the LRC submitted a request in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 to the Department on how data on learner dropout or non-attendance is recorded. We asked the following five questions: 

  1.  What is the breakdown in the number of girl and boy-learners aged five to 24 who attended a primary or secondary education institution per year from 2015 to 2020? 
  2. What is the breakdown in the number of girl and boy-learners between the ages of five and 24 who dropped out from primary or secondary school per year from 2015 to 2020? 
  3. Does StatsSA record information on LGBTQI+ learner dropout? If not, why not? If StatsSA records information on LGBTQI+ learner dropout, kindly provide us with the dropout rates and the reasons. 
  4. What reasons qualify as ‘working at home’ for purposes of learner dropout? 
  5. What reasons qualify as ‘other’ for purposes of learner dropout?  

The responses that we received reflects shortcomings in data collection and analysis of learner attendance and dropout rates, which the Department itself recognises. With regard to 3, the Department advised that: 

 “[It] does not yet collect data on the numbers of learners who drop out due to discrimination, such as that linked to LGBTQI+. However, we have initiated a discussion with STATS SA to see if this response option can be added to the question on reason for not attending school that is asked in the General Household Survey”. 

 We did not receive a response to our questions regarding the meaning of ‘working from home’ or what reasons qualify as ‘other’ for purposes of learner dropout or non-attendance. Instead, the Department provided general information on the reasons it has recorded for learner dropout. In respect of the “other” category, the Department advised that:  

 “It is difficult to speculate what those other reasons are likely to be, but it is also possible that it was just a comfortable response option given the sensitive nature of disclosing some of the reasons for dropping out”. 

 Given the prevalence of learner dropout based on “other” reasons, we are concerned that the Department has not taken steps to expand on the categories. Obtaining data on “other” reasons for learner dropout will allow the Department and the Provincial Education Departments to take steps through adopting policies and other measures to ensure that these learners are not left behind.  

We draw attention, in particular, to the potential impact of school-related gender-based violence, educator sexual misconduct, documentation issues, and various forms of discrimination and bullying on learner dropout. Exposure to these circumstances have been found to increase the likelihood of learners not finishing their education, but data on the South African context is lacking.  

In light of the above, we recommend that the Department urgently engage with StatsSA on expanding the categories that it collects data on for learners leaving school, including at least the following options: 

  • Physical violence from other learners 
  • Physical violence from educators 
  • Sexual violence from other learners 
  • Sexual violence from educators 
  • Discriminated against or bullied because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or any other status  
  • Do not have a birth certificate 
  • Do not have a valid refugee or asylum seeker permit 

It remains valuable to provide “other” as a category. Where prevalence of learner dropout in this category remains high, it means that there are reasons for learners leaving school that are not yet considered and that further categories should be added.  

Yours faithfully,