Research seminar shares lessons from five year study of school dropout

9 February 2021
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In conjunction with the Education Observatory, CIDT’s Mary Surridge delivered a presentation around the recently completed longitudinal study of school survival in Zimbabwe, funded by UNICEF.

The study, which followed a cohort of 3,800 learners from across the country, focused on the critically important transition point from primary to secondary school and beyond in order to assess the key factors that led to learners remaining and succeeding in school or dropping out. It also continued to track those who did drop out, to analyse the pathways taken and the impact on their lives.

The findings of the study highlight where and at what stage in the education cycle to prioritise spending in order to leverage the best results, particularly in terms of ensuring access to quality education for the most marginalised girls and boys. It has generated discussion about the role of government and communities in the education of the nation’s children.

Mary’s presentation to University colleagues revealed several stories of the challenges children must overcome to continue with their education, such as that of a Zimbabwean girl called Pari:

After her father passed away when Pari was in Grade 5, she started fending for the family. She said she does all sorts of jobs working in people’s fields, fetching water and even gold mining. She said they go to a river where they do the gold mining activities. She explained that she and her brother would use hoes to dig in the river and  wheelbarrows to carry their load of stones. They sell their stones to buyers. At the most they get $3 which she shares equally with her brother so they can buy sandals and a book and a pen from the $1.50.

She then returns to school. After a few days when another book is needed she goes back to mining. She explained how the work is so hectic and she does not even have time for reading. She says that she misses a lot of school days because she has to fend for the family.

The mixed methods study used both quantitative and qualitative tools including three major surveys undertaken with over 8000 children, questionnaires with almost 1500 teachers and questionnaires with parents and caregivers. Forty case studies gave an insight into the varying circumstances of different children. Tracking and field visits at the midline stage discovered that the learners from 270 primary schools had scattered to 628 secondary schools.

Some of the key findings showed that of the 3724 learners:

  • 67% are still in school
  • 43 learners are repeating a grade
  • 11% are known to have dropped out

Findings indicate that the following three key factors have the greatest impact on a learner’s ability to remain in school:

  • Being able to afford school fees and materials
  • Parental commitment and belief in education
  • Learners commitment, confidence and self esteem

Additionally, the study showed more challenges for learners from rural areas. The difference between boys and girls chances of remaining in school was only slight with boys having the greater chance. The initiatives from certain schools, in particular for helping with school fees, were crucial in some circumstances. Whilst it is not legal, many children reported being ‘chased from school’ at times when they were behind on fees.

Regarding children that dropped out of school, many were followed up with telephone interviews, revealing that the major cause was household poverty and the inability to meet the costs of education. Where families live in areas where there is a high need for labour, parents are less motivated to fund schooling. For girls, lack of support, early marriage and pregnancy also featured as causes. Other risks included the dropout of siblings or friends.

Almost all dropouts wanted to return to school but face the barriers of cost, age and learning abilities

Mary also spoke about the impact of COVID-19. With more families unable to pay fees and school difficulties in enforcing social distancing, as well as interruptions to support and problematic online learning provision there has been a big impact on educational outcomes.

Key recommendations

Government should:

  • Maintain an effective national tracking system
  • Increase financial equity in the system
  • Address the direct and indirect costs of education for orphans and vulnerable children
  • Encourage schools to engage more with communities and parents/caregivers
  • Ensure schools have the capacity to adhere to the law

Schools should:

  • Identify and support children that are likely to be affected in the transition to secondary schools
  • Provide training for staff so that they are better equipped to support children
  • Facilitate better transition planning with individualised transition plans for learners.
  • Establish an early detection and support system for children at risk of dropping out
  • Innovate and increase access to vocational training and development of trades skills

In his introduction, Prof Philip Dearden gave a background to CIDT’s education work and experience of large scale evaluation studies, particularly around girls’ education and touched on the impact that the report is already having on education policy in Zimbabwe:

“As we will hear, the study uncovered a wide range of interesting statistics and many personal stories of determination and courage often against all odds. The results have provided the Government of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education with evidence to support its planning, policy shaping and expenditure on education.”

Mary Surridge, the team leader for this work, joined the University in 1989 in what was then the Centre for Curriculum and Staff Development in the School of Education. Mary then joined CIDT and has been with us for 30 years.  During this time, she has worked in over 30 different countries, mostly in education, gender and social inclusion.

Mary’s resolve kept the study on track through the COVID-19 pandemic. Working closely with project partners Muthengo Development Solutions and Development Data, she was able to keep significant policy makers in Zimbabwe interested and engaged, ensuring that the key messages were delivered and received in time to impact upon policy decisions.

Thank you to the Educational Observatory for hosting this seminar and to Amy Welham for all her organisational work in getting this event to happen.