Leaving no child behind: The road to Zero School Dropout

The matric results represent a proud moment for many schools – an indication of education quality and success, but it is not the full story.  The reality is that about half of any cohort of learners have left school without having written the matric exam.[1]

Grades 10 and 11 in particular experience high rates of grade repetition and a massive dropout of learners. We must not be fooled into thinking learners who have left the school system go on to greener pastures, statistics show that the vast majority of learners who do not get a matric, are left with nothing else.

These alarming figures require intervention at all stages of schooling. The ideal place to start is with good prenatal care, early childhood development and setting a strong educational foundation. It gets more difficult to intervene with every passing year of a child’s life, but it is certainly not impossible. All children deserve a chance to develop their potential, regardless of the stumbling blocks they face in the education system.

That is why we are incubating a “zero dropout schools” initiative, with the vision of reducing the rate of learners leaving the basic education system before grade 12, by half, within a decade. We took this on with the help of six implementing partners, each with their own experience and expertise in different communities, and with different approaches. This is allowing us to learn from each other, to pool experience and ultimately to develop better programmes to prevent school dropout.

Over the following weeks, we want to introduce you to our partners at the coalface. They offer a ground-up perspective on a very complex issue that can help us all to develop a deeper understanding of what of what is pushing so many South Africa children out of the school system. In this, the first article of the series, we set the stage for these conversations with an interview with DGMT CEO, David Harrison who shares his thoughts about why we need a “zero dropout schools” initiative.

Why do you feel that a zero school dropout initiative is important and what makes it different from any other?

The unemployment statistics released on the 13th of February show that the formal rate of unemployment is 27% and among people who have not achieved their matric, it’s 33%. That’s the narrow definition of unemployment. The expanded definition of unemployment is even higher at 35%[2].

Those people who have not completed school have even higher rates of unemployment. This group constitutes at least a third of our population in South Africa and have so few prospects of jobs and of any way contributing meaningfully to the economy. They are often marginalised and isolated. If the country is serious about overcoming social marginalisation in order to address the immediate social problems of crime, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and the longer-term agenda of economic growth and building an inclusive society, we have to prevent learners from dropping out of school.

What words of encouragement do you have for organisations working in this space?

They’re working on one of the most critical and vital elements of transformation of South African society. They’re working on an issue that most of society is blind to and that is on the one hand, shocking and on the other an opportunity. They’re starting off at the lowest baseline, as we sometimes say, which gives them massive opportunity to make a difference, because it’s a space that so few people are working in and because we know that there are factors that can stop school dropout. This is not an insurmountable problem. It can be addressed.

What do you hope to see by the end of 2019? And in 10 years from now?

It would be ideal if we can develop a community of schools that come together and share a common identity, and that has a commitment to ensure that all their children stay in school. If we can create that collective identity and galvanise that spirit across 10 or 20 schools, it would be an incredibly powerful node for change. It’ll show that it can be done. It’ll light a spark in many other schools. It’ll create a replicator effect that could take off across the country. It will change the narrative and move us away from this false narrative that celebrates the matric results that we have in the country. It will highlight the real issues that need to be addressed for us to turn around the education crisis in South Africa. It will provide a spark of hope and inspiration that I think will become very powerful over time. By the end of 2019, let’s have a network of 20-25 schools that will be a powerful beacon of change in the country.

I think it would be possible in 10 years to have 80% of children completing matric. I think the reality is that it is never going to be 100% if we look across the issues of the country and the time it requires to take the positive effects of early childhood development and transforming foundation phase teaching. These changes are going to take time. There’s going to be a pipeline effect, so it would be naive to think that we will get it right in 10 years, but we can be a long way down the path. We can really have shown what can be done. We can start seeing a reduction in failure rates in schools as a consequence. That will have a knock-on effect. It will free up some money to create an incentive for government to keep more children in school.

What, in your opinion, are the three key levers for reducing school dropout rates?

I think that galvanising all the role players together in a commitment to keeping children in school can go a long way, especially when you’re dealing with an issue that is so de-emphasised in communities and politically across the country. Community expectation is really important. If you can create an influence it will have a political knock-on. It will come on a political agenda both nationally and locally and you’ll start building a constituency which is crucially important.

Secondly, we have to pay particular attention to those children that keep failing throughout their school years with nothing done about it. We watch them consistently fail until they drop out. We need to put in place early warning systems and radical strategies that don’t just say “tough luck, you have to keep doing the grade 7 curriculum even though you actually can only function at the grade 2 level”. We have to ensure that children are sufficiently prepared to go to school, and sufficiently prepared to move on to the next grade.

The third is that there are some easy wins. We need to look at vulnerable individuals and groups and offer them support if they do not attend school due to non-academic issues. One example is girls missing school because they don’t have access to sanitary products. This could go a long way in ensuring those that want to learn, but can’t, can actually attend class and not fall behind.

In the next instalment, we will feature interviews with Ashley Visagie of Bottom-Up and Daleen Labuschagne of the Khula Development Group.

Register for our email notifications here so not to miss this interview.


[1] Spaull, N. (2015). “Schooling in South Africa: How Low-quality Education Becomes a Poverty Trap. South African Child Gauge 2015.

[2] StatsSA. 2018. Quarterly Labour Force Survey: Quarter 4: 2017. Access from

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