Learners in South Africa up to one school year behind where they should be

On the eve of the re-opening of school, UNICEF calls for urgent action to protect schools from vandalism and urges ongoing compliance to COVID-19 safety measures so that every child can be in class, every day.

22 July 2021
Children in a classroom
UNICEF South Africa/2020/Schermbrucker

PRETORIA, 22 July 2021 – The impact of disrupted education since the COVID-19 outbreak has been devastating, with learners between 75 per cent and a full school year behind where they should be, according to latest statistics. Rotational attendance, sporadic school closures and days off for specific grades, have resulted in school children losing 54 per cent of learning time.

Some 400,000 to 500,000 learners have reportedly also dropped out of school altogether over the past 16-months. This is most likely for children living in informal urban and rural settings, with household poverty also playing a critical role. The total number of out of school children is now up to 750,000.

“The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose another learner or another hour of learning time,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF South Africa Representative. “It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now,” Muhigana added.

Being out of school not only leads to learning loss but mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, missed school-based meals and reduced development of social skills. In the longer-term, the skills needed to transition into working lives will be affected. Evidence also shows that when children are out of school, women are twice as likely to take on childcare responsibilities, affecting their ability to work or search for work. 

The switch to blended learning, following the COVID-19 outbreak, was quick and included rotational classes, as well as access to online, radio and TV educational resources.

"Remote learning has been a lifeline for some children but for the most vulnerable in South Africa, even this was out of reach,” said Muhigana. Access to the devices, data and skills necessary to navigate online resources are simply not possible for many children. “We need to ensure that we prioritize vulnerable girls and boys in all our efforts to keep children in classrooms,” added Muhigana.

The education system can’t afford any further shocks, such as the recent unrest which resulted in more than 140 schools being vandalized in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. This comes on the back of the more than 2,000 schools that were looted and damaged during the hard COVID-19 lockdown last year.

“The twin burden of COVID-19 and recent disruptions equally affects teachers, supporting and improving their well-being should be a priority,” said Muhigana. “We are glad that the Department of Basic Education is hosting the first ever ‘Teacher Wellness Seminar’ and UNICEF is committed to provide its full support to the education sector,” she added.

To keep every child in class, UNICEF is lending its support to the Department of Basic Education and partners in the ongoing efforts to:

  • Promote community dialogues that engage parents, caregivers, and community leaders in school life, to increase their ownership over local schools, which in-turn can help ensure their protection.
  • Maintain adherence to the child-friendly COVID-19 standard operating procedures and protocols to keep children, teachers, and educational staff as safe as possible.
  • Cover the last mile in further increasing COVID-19 vaccination coverage in the education sector.
  • Continue improving access to handwashing facilities and hygiene promotion activities for all children. UNICEF and its partners will build on work that has already seen 400 handwashing stations installed in targeted schools that lack decent facilities.
  • Promote and scale-up effective remedial programmes to help students get back on track.
  • Improve access to psychosocial support for children and educational staff to cope with the ongoing stress of COVID-19 and the recent unrest.

UNICEF calls on all stakeholders to ‘Reimagine Education’ to help regain the ground lost, by taking advantage of emerging technologies to accelerate education service delivery, while focusing on equity and broader partnerships for greater impact.


Notes to editors:

Latest statistics come from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) Wave 5, as well as the Department of Basic Education.

Media contacts

Toby Fricker
Chief of Communication & Partnerships
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 61 418 7486
Sara Alhattab
Tel: +1 917 957 6536


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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