Using data to prevent & monitor dropout

Siboniso Bophela

23 May 2022

Data in Dropout Prevention explained

Early Warning Systems

Having quality data is crucial to managing education, from resource allocation to assessment, and although South Africa has made progress in developing systems for collecting and managing data, there are still gaps that remain.


Data collected at the right level, and at the right time can enable Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) to include Early Warning Systems (EWS); a tried and tested practice for the prevention of learner disengagement. The implementation of an EWS may be precisely what is required to remediate high rates of dropout in South Africa.


There is a growing body of research on the topic of learner engagement, which points to the need for effective monitoring systems to track the progress of learners, and to alert education officials as to any potential indication of the risk of disengagement and dropout.


The ABC indicators

While there are several datasets tracking matric exam results, annual school surveys, and master school lists, this information is only at the ‘aggregate’ (collective) level, not at the level of individual learners. Learner-level information could help us flag which young people are most at risk of dropping out.


If we are serious about keeping learners in school, it’s essential that we collect and analyse data at the learner and school levels. By tracking individual learners’ absenteeism, academic performance and behaviour, we can better understand their struggles and pathways through school. This will allow us to identify learners at risk of dropout, and design well-informed support programmes, as early as possible.


The types of learner information that are measured and tracked are called ‘indicators’. If accurately collected and monitored, these could help schools to identify who is disengaging at school and therefore at risk of dropout: Academic Results, Behaviour Problems and Chronic Absenteeism.


Tracking Absenteeism

By tracking individual learners’ absenteeism, academic performance and behaviour, we can better understand their struggles and pathways through school. This will allow us to identify learners at risk of dropout, and design well-informed support programmes, as early as possible.


Tracking absenteeism is an important intervention toward effective dropout prevention strategies, even more so amid a pandemic. Absenteeism rates in 2020 had been higher than normal. When schools reopened in July, most of them experienced absenteeism of between 10% and 25% as compared to the normal 2%.


Despite its good intentions, the existing policy (where a student's class record is cancelled after consecutive days of non-attendance) fosters a punitive approach to absenteeism in which the learners themselves bear the burden of what is often out of their control. The current system — and how it is used in schools — essentially contributes to disengagement and eventual dropout.


Monitoring Learner Disengagement

It is essential for schools to deal with the problem by showing care and concern for children who show early signs of disengagement. Schools need to adopt a different, more engaged and caring approach.


High rates of absenteeism should be a key factor for referral to a mentorship programme. In East London, The Masibumbane Development Organisation (MDO) found having qualified and experienced social workers placed as mentors in the schools has really helped to track each of the learners in the programme.


MDO works in six schools where up to 30 of the most vulnerable learners in Grades 6 – 9 at each school are selected for a mentorship programme using the “Check & Connect” approach. The mentors are trained auxiliary social workers who have experience working in disadvantaged communities.


Strong Referral Systems

We need strong referral systems: If a child shows signs of not attending school regularly or not arriving at school properly clothed, teachers are encouraged to alert the dropout catchers, who follow up with home visits to ascertain what problems are causing absenteeism or disengagement and to see if there is an appropriate solution.


Teacher buy-in is essential: The “dropout catchers” rely on teachers to refer learners to them who have been absent for three consecutive days, or who show worrying behavioural patterns. Teachers do this by filling in referral forms and posting them into a box placed in the foyer of their school.


Even though teachers know they are supposed to keep good records, they often do it half-heartedly or they forget to note who is absent during a lesson. Experience has proven to show that introducing teacher appreciation events and small prizes incentivise educators to be more diligent about referring absent learners.


5 things to understand

📌 It’s possible to build school-based support teams and to show them how to adopt a non-punitive and caring approach to absenteeism, which takes the many causal factors into account and allows the best interests of the learner to be considered in finding a solution.


📌 Follow-up visits and the building of ongoing relationships with learners and their families are important as issues are seldom solved overnight.


📌 It’s crucial to build a good relationship with the teachers to build an efficient referral system.


📌 Where NPO personnel are conducting tracking and follow-ups of absent learners, it’s important to use persons who are respected by communities and families and can assist them to address difficult socio-economic and psychological issues.


📌 Build a good relationship with the school’s leadership