LRC back in court to confront government’s lack of action on overcrowded schools

[Release]

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

LRC back in court to confront government’s lack of action on overcrowded schools

In the latest development in a six-year legal battle affecting thousands of learners who attend overcrowded schools in the Eastern Cape, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) will once again appear in the Mthatha High Court on 9 November 2023 on behalf of concerned parents, in a bid to compel government to provide clarity on how it plans to solve overcrowding in schools.

In August 2018, a group of concerned parents, represented by the LRC, took the MEC of the Department of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape and other government actors to court over the extremely overcrowded conditions at four Eastern Cape schools. Class numbers at these schools routinely exceeded 80 learners per class (double the number of learners that South African infrastructure norms set out as the limit per classroom), and sometimes reached over 100 learners in a single classroom.

The extreme overcrowding at these schools was not only a safety hazard but also deeply compromised learners’ access to a quality basic education. Learners were often crowded three to a desk, with no space to write, and often reported not being able to hear what a teacher said. Such large class sizes made it impossible for teachers to maintain discipline or even discern when a learner did not attend a class. Often learners were expected to mark their own work.

Despite the fact that on 13 November 2018 the Superintendent General of the Eastern Cape Education Department sent a letter to the LRC agreeing that urgent intervention was required to solve the overcrowding crisis, and undertook to provide new classrooms to the schools, no concrete action was taken over the next two years.

In February 2020 the LRC appeared in the Mthatha High Court and secured substantive relief in the case against the Department of Basic Education, who were directed to provide 65 temporary classrooms to the four schools (Attwell Madala Senior Secondary School in Mthatha, Enduku Junior Secondary School in eNgcobo, Dudumayo Senior Secondary School in Mqanduli, and Mnceba Senior Secondary School in Ntabankulu) within 90 days.

Although extremely delayed, those classrooms have now been built at three of the schools, but construction has yet to begin at the fourth.

After lengthy delays, the education department finally sent a list of overcrowded schools – but no plan of action – to the LRC in June 2023. It consisted of a 94-page list of schools with at least one severely overcrowded classroom, showing that:

  • out of a total of between 1357 and 1996 schools, a staggering 424 have at least one classroom of 60 learners or more. This means that between 21 and 31 % of schools in the four education districts have at least one classroom that is severely overcrowded. 
  • Ninety-two schools have five or more severely overcrowded classrooms; and at least one classroom that holds 100 or more learners. 

To date – and despite numerous requests – the ECDOE has failed to explain what concrete steps it will be taking to remedy this situation.

“No construction on new classrooms has begun at our school, despite the fact that we got a court order which says the education department has to build more classrooms to deal with overcrowding. Right now, the classrooms at our school remain extremely overcrowded, which means our children can’t get the education they deserve,”, says, Mpendulo Matiwane, chairperson of the school’s Governing Body.

According to Cameron McConnachie, co-lead for the LRC’s Education Programme: “To go beyond inaction to legally resist providing clarity on a plan of action to ensure children living in South Africa can access the quality basic education which is recognised as their Constitutionally enshrined and immediately realisable right is, frankly, indefensible.”

The LRC will therefore return to court on 9 November 2023 in a bid to compel government officials to produce a plan of action, within 90 days, that will set out how overcrowding at schools will be addressed.

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The Legal Resources Centre is an independent public interest law centre with offices throughout South Africa. We work with partners and marginalised communities to harness the power of the law to promote social justice, fight for equality and realise the human rights enshrined in the South African Constitution.