Support young people to keep their grip on opportunity

The Zero Dropout Campaign

The Zero Dropout Campaign aims to halve the rate of school dropout by 2030. Specifically, the initiative aims to increase national awareness of the problem of school dropout and spur action towards addressing it; identify and demonstrate what it takes to help children make it through school; and mobilise a network of schools that are committed to achieving the goal of zero dropout.

A learner from Gompo in the Eastern Cape photographed in 2020.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

For every 100 learners who start Grade 1 in South Africa, about 40 will drop out before completing matric 1Gustafsson, M. 2011. The when and how of leaving school: The policy implications of new evidence on secondary schooling in South Africa. Access here. Of the 60 learners who do make it to Grade 12 to write their matric exam, typically about 20 of them will fail2Van den Berg, S, & Gustafsson, M. 2017. Quality of basic education: A report to Working Group 1 of the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation. ReSEP, Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch. Access here..

As it is legal for South African learners to leave school at the end of Grade 9, low levels of retention would be less concerning if learners continued their education through other channels, or if they entered employment – but the majority do not3Gustafsson, 2011. 4Moses, E., Van Der Berg, S., & Rich, K. 2017. A society divided: How Unequal Education Quality Limits Social Mobility in South Africa. A Synthesis Report for the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development (PSPPD). Access here.. Only 1% of learners who drop out of school hold a certificate or diploma issued by, for instance, a Technical or Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college5Gustafsson, 2011..

The consequences of the loss of nearly half of our young people who start their schooling journey will undermine the urgent tasks of building a just and inclusive society, where everyone is able to contribute to the development of our economic, social and political systems – as well as family and community wellbeing.

Not having a matric certificate cuts young people off from many of life’s chances, including finding employment and accessing tertiary education.

Grade Repetition

Grade repetition is very high in South Africa and leads to many learners being over-aged for their class, which is linked to learner dropout in high school. In Grade 7, 36% of learners are already overaged; by Grade 12, that proportion rises to 56%6Request a printed copy. More than one in five learners who reach matric are at least three years over age, showing how common repetition is.


The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems

The Zero Dropout Campaign wants to change the perception that school dropout is a normal occurrence by demonstrating what it takes to help learners complete Grade 12. The first step towards addressing school dropout is to prioritise it as a national problem. However, the fact that so many children leave school without any qualification is not yet firmly acknowledged by all levels of government to be a problem,7Equal Education. 2017. Matric result an indicator of primary schooling in crisis. Access it here. and as a result, there are no specific systems or policies in place to address it.

If we are serious about transformation in South Africa, it is critical to change the perception that school dropout is normal and show what it takes to develop effective initiatives to keep children in school – and to put the issue on the national agenda. It is key to establish systems that identify the signs of disengagement and demoralisation early on, as these accumulate exponentially every year. 

Finally, to ensure that children and youth stay on track the whole way through to the end of Grade 12, we need to have interventions every step of the way. At no point should we reach a no-hope viewpoint. It gets more difficult to affect change as a child gets older, but there are still benefits. Learners sitting on the fence need to be kept in school. 

The Zero Dropout Campaign is continuously learning and developing in its quest to find the best ways of doing what is described above. As a knowledge hub, the campaign has collaborated with a number of non-profit organisations (NPOs) to test models of intervention to prevent dropout. 

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

In 2017, DGMT worked with nine non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to get a better understanding of the complexity of school dropout. We consolidated our learnings and, in 2018, The Zero Dropout Campaign was launched. We now know more about the problem and its complexity, and realise we need to put more energy and effort behind this initiative. 

We will continue to think holistically about teacher well-being and equip caregivers to play active roles in their children’s education. Lastly, the campaign aims to improve learner data – in terms of collection, quality and analysis.

Visit the Zero Dropout website to learn more:

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

Helpful Resources

Useful Links

This study illustrates the inefficiencies in our schooling system: Using high quality administrative data to understand education system performance

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