Covid -19 has exposed a number of vulnerabilities in the schooling system. These vulnerabilities are caused by the persistent social and educational inequalities in our society. In an earlier blog, we spoke about schools as being “high stress” institutions at times. This is due to the numerous challenges that teachers and learners have to face on a daily basis as they strive to fulfill the core (teaching and learning) functions of the school. School attendance is another complex challenge faced by schools – and it has been around long before the pandemic.

School attendance, like many of the other vulnerabilities in the schooling system, has been exacerbated by the current crisis. Our schools have once again been called upon to deal with the challenge of school attendance.

Before we talk about how schools are responding to this challenge, let’s examine why school attendance is important. Firstly, attendance is the entry point into the domain of opportunities to learn within the school system. When this is done well, it leads to school engagement, or as some people call it, school attachment – where the school offers some benefits and becomes attractive for the learner. In other words, the school becomes a place where the learner wants to be.

As the learner attends and participates in school activities over time, and where the school focuses on increasing and improving opportunities to learn, she/he develops a learning disposition that involves a behavioral, academic, and an attitudinal orientation towards schooling. This forms the basis for learner success throughout the schooling years, as well as further studies at higher institutions of learning. I call this, to borrow from an economic term, the virtuous cycle of schooling.

An opposite cycle can also occur. When school attendance is compromised due to school-related factors or social circumstances, it is likely to lead to school disengagement, a weakening of school attachment ties and learning dispositions, and eventual school apathy and drop-out. This is what I call the malicious cycle of de-schooling. It has negative effects for the learners who drop out, their families, and eventually for society as a whole. This is the reason why school attendance is such an important issue, and why we should all be concerned that learner attendance has decreased across all provinces during this period of the pandemic.

So, what are our schools doing about learner attendance during this time? They are aware of this challenge, and many schools are doing the best that they can. Mr. Shabalala identified some of the reasons for poor school attendance: fragmented families, child-headed households, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy … to name but a few. These are challenges that arise from the social circumstances of learners, and add to the complexity and stresses of schooling. Nazeem mentioned that some families relocated to other parts of the country, and Pule and Thembekile noted that the inconsistency in learner attendance was made worse by the rotation of classes.

School leaders also shared some of the things they were doing to deal with learner absenteeism. Ms. Njelo spoke about checking up regularly on school attendance and following up by having meetings with parents. This is an important leadership lesson: once a challenge has been identified and a plan of action has been formulated to address it, it becomes important to follow-through (implement the plan) and to follow-up on it (check to assess how it’s going). This latter action is often neglected, and is one of the reasons why many well-intentioned activities often achieve limited results.

Another school principal, Ms. Ndlovu spoke about the importance of communication and using social and community networks to remind learners and parents about school attendance. She also noted the importance of the school nutrition programme in keeping learners at school.

Mr. Ubizi, a principal from KZN spoke about his school’s clear policy and procedures around school attendance: a learner attendance policy that all parents are familiar with; tracking attendance on a daily basis through roll-call and class registers; and the expectations of a parent to write a letter after three days of consecutive learner absence. The efforts of Mr. Ubizi and the other school leaders in dealing with school attendance are all important practices we can learn from.

However, one nagging question remains, especially in dealing with some of the social challenges that affect school attendance and engagement. Can schools, on their own, deal with many of these challenges? The realistic answer is no, and we should not expect them to.

This is where Merle Mansfield and the Zero Dropout Campaign can play a key role. They work alongside schools and collaborate with other non-profit organizations to develop effective strategies for preventing dropout. Their activities include mobilizing community networks to get the message out; training parent or community volunteers to conduct follow-up visits to homes; and implementing a number of school-based activities designed to make school more interesting and engaging for the learner.

Rather than think about school as operating in isolation from these kinds of initiatives, school leaders need to regard it as an important part of a network of support that is built around the learner. The school forms an important part of this network, and the leader has to be an active network builder who connects the school to outside initiatives that can assist in supporting the health, well-being, and academic growth of the learner. For many learners in our country, this is often the last safety net that holds them – if they fall through it, we lose them.

Nozipho made a very important point in her input. She spoke about the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders. By this we mean the ability of leaders who are aware of and can manage their own thoughts and feelings, but who also show empathy for others and can connect with them around their feelings and experiences. Why is this important in our discussion about learner attendance?

Perhaps Mr. Ubizi’s closing comments best illustrate what we mean by emotional intelligence. He said that there are often valid reasons behind absenteeism, and we must, “Take… time to understand the root causes.”

This is a great example of a leader who suspends judgment and avoids initial blame for absenteeism by trying to more deeply understand the reasons behind it. This occurs before making a decision to take action. When dealing with absenteeism in this manner, the leader is better able to understand and connect to the experiences, emotions, and needs of the learner in addressing the challenge of school attendance. The result of this? A learner who feels cared for by the school and who is likely to stay engaged in its activities.

This leads me to the last point that I want to make in relation to the virtuous cycle of schooling. Leaders who nurture a culture of care in their schools can create lasting and durable learner-school attachments. One of the ways in which they do this is by creating a sense of belonging for everyone in the school, where learners feel connected to each other and the staff; feel cared for; are affirmed; know that their teachers believe in them; and are encouraged to pursue their dreams. This is of personal significance to me – it was central to my role as leader in our school.

I close with an extract from an afterword that I wrote in a children’s book that told the actual story of our school:

“… School should be a place where learners feel safe and cared for.
It should be a place where hard work and commitment are
encouraged … and it should be a place where our children can
dream their futures … and know that these futures can be achieved
because their teachers and parents care for and believe in them…” 1

1“Books and Bricks at Manyano School: How a School Rebuilt a Community.” by Sindiwe Magona (2014). David Philip Publishers.

I wrote this many years ago… it is still relevant today.