Without rhyme or reason: why we must confront government’s lack of action on overcrowded schools

In 2018, a group of concerned Eastern Cape parents approached the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) for legal assistance. The low-fee and no-fee schools their children attended were extremely overcrowded, despite many years of pleading with local authorities to build more classrooms or reduce class sizes.

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. To make matters worse, a number of these schools were also forced to take in additional learners in the years that followed after the department closed nearby schools as part of a school rationalisation process.

In August 2018, the LRC took the MEC of the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education and other government actors to court over the conditions at four of these 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. Recognising that the conditions at these four schools were common across the education districts in which they were situated, the LRC also asked the Court to order the Eastern Cape Department of Education to provide a list of schools in those education districts that had, on average, 60 or more learners per classroom and an explanation for how it would address overcrowding at those schools.

Following the launch of the case, and 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 committing to provide new classrooms to the schools. But, over the next two years, no concrete action was taken. Finally, after years of legal wrangling and delays, the LRC appeared in the Mthatha High Court in February 2020 and secured substantive relief in the case. The Department of Basic Education was directed to provide 65 temporary classrooms to the four schools within 90 days.

Now, six years after the case was launched and three years since the 2020 ruling, some progress has been made: classrooms have been built at three of the schools and construction has begun at the fourth.

Here is what has not changed. After lengthy delays in filing answering papers, and initially stating that it was impossible to compile the lists detailing how many schools were severely overcrowded, a list but no plan of action – was finally sent to the LRC in June 2023. It consisted of a 94-page list of schools with at least one severely overcrowded classroom. In particular:

  • out of a total of between 1,357 and 1,996 schools across the four districts, a staggering 424 have at least one classroom of 60 learners or more. This means that between 21 and 31 % of schools in the education districts listed have at least one classroom that is severely overcrowded. 
  • Ninety-two schools have both five or more severely overcrowded classrooms and at least one classroom that holds 100 or more learners. 

The extreme overcrowding at these schools is not only a health and safety hazard but also deeply compromises learners’ ability to access a quality basic education.

  • Learners are often crowded three to a desk, with no space to write.
  • Learners report not being able to hear what the teacher is saying.
  • Such large class sizes make it impossible for teachers to maintain discipline or even discern when a learner did not attend class.
  • Often learners are expected to mark their own work.

Over the last six years the education department has repeatedly characterised the overcrowding at these schools as commonplace, rather than extraordinary. Officials have repeatedly claimed that action cannot be taken due to budgetary constraints and a lack of resources. Worse, they have seemingly purposely resisted and obstructed legal process seeking to alleviate overcrowding. In all, the government departments responsible for fixing this problem have shown a callous disregard for the rights of the learners they are mandated to protect.

To go beyond inaction and actively resist efforts to secure a plan of action to ensure children living in South Africa can access the quality basic education that is recognised as their Constitutionally enshrined and immediately realisable right is, frankly, indefensible.

When the LRC appears in the Mthatha High Court on 9 November 2023, we will be seeking to compel officials at the Department of Education to answer a simple question:

What is the plan to alleviate the overcrowding which threatens the education of a generation of children?