Supporting learners vital
SOUTH African teens are struggling in the mire of intergenerational inequality – and we’re not doing enough to help them out of it, especially when it comes to supporting their school education journey.
That’s one of the clear messages from the recently released Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) report called “Understanding Youth Inequality”. The report, researched and written by Percept, offers a close, and sometimes uncomfortable, look at youth inequality in this country, recognising that development is a cumulative process.
Any meaningful shift in inequality demands that we unlock the social and economic mobility of youth. A quality high school education is key to that mobility.
Access to basic education has improved dramatically in South Africa. By the early 1990s, the country had near-universal enrolment rates at primary school level. Yet, only 60% of young people in South Africa make it to Grade 12, and only 40% leave with a matric certificate. This is a major setback for young people, because the higher their education, the more likely they are to find or create work.
Evidence suggests that tertiary qualifications, in particular, increases the chances of being employed. But without recognised school qualifications, many young people will struggle to continue their education.
Some researchers suggest that there are a few primary routes through which young people from low-income households can achieve social mobility and access the upper end of the labour market: by attending either more-affluent schools or better-performing schools in poor communities; by performing well in Grade 12, despite being in a lower-quality school, and finding the resources to access university; or by entering the labour market at the lower end and progressing upwards.
There are immense challenges in all three paths: from undoing historic inequalities in access to quality education, to reaching and passing matric, to gaining university access. On their journey towards quality jobs, most of South Africa’s young people face inordinate obstacles to success because, from a very early age.
We need to be able to support, prepare and boost young people at key moments over their life-course, so that they approach adulthood ready to contribute to social, economic and civic life; escaping long-held patterns of social exclusion.
South Africa’s youth unemployment rates are significantly affected by high levels of early school-leaving which translates into low access to post-secondary education, and ultimately higher levels of unemployment.
School dropout is a process propelled by a range of factors in young people’s schools, homes and communities that serve to either push or pull them from school. It usually comes after years of effort and grade repetition.
Zero Dropout and Youth Capital, both of which are national campaigns working to change the odds for young people, are showing us the need to recognise dropout as a national problem. It demands urgent efforts at the school, community, provincial, and national level. They’ve identified five steps we can take to ensure adolescents are supported to stay in school.
1. Implement early warning systems. For young people to reap the benefits of basic education, they must be supported to complete their schooling. Research suggests that three indices are critical to identify early signs of disengagement: academic performance, behaviour change, and chronic absenteeism. Documenting these early warning signs can help to trigger support before learners drop out.
2. Open access to psychosocial support. Many South African children face trauma, violence, loss, hardship, poor living conditions, and limited access to services. Evidence from South African longitudinal research shows mental illness leads to lower secondary completion and employment, and more psychological distress. Psychosocial support should include referral to professional services, triggered by early warning systems.
3. Schools must support pregnant learners and young mothers to stay in school. They face challenges that disrupt their learning. Policy must support learners to stay in school and young mothers to return to school as soon as possible after giving birth.
Howeversome places ignore policy in favour of expelling pregnant learners.
4. Support alternative pathways to a matric qualification. Recent research suggests that, at any given time, there are as many as a quarter of a million young people pursuing a matric outside the full-time school system – a third of the annual matric cohort. Government must expand and support these alternative routes which include the National Senior Certificate, the Senior Certificate and the National Senior Certificate for Adults. This should include easily accessible support services that help young people navigate second-chance matric qualifications.
5. Improve TVET education in terms of access and quality. Fewer than two in 10 young people starting Grade 1 will attend university, due to a lack of support. Six out of 10 young people will not receive a matric certificate and will need to find pathways to further education where this is not a requirement. To increase tertiary education, access to quality Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVETs) must be increased, offering targeted skills training and workplace-based learning. High schools should educate Grade 8 and 9 learners on all learning pathways, including TVETs. The Department of Basic Education introduced the General Education Certificate, which offers hope for a national qualification for Grade 9 graduates, but must ensure it is recognised by employers and tertiary institutions.
To curb inequality, our focus must be on supporting young people’s livelihoods to break the cycles of inequality. If we fail to support young people in their early lives, inequalities will only widen as they grow older. It will take an urgent, broad and government-supported response to help them from when they are born, right through school, and into the job market.