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Classes every three weeks: How a Mthatha school deals with severe overcrowding

Classes every three weeks: How a Mthatha school deals with severe overcrowding
Children gather for classes at the Attwell Madala Senior Secondary School — the school has only 19 classrooms and 1,147 learners from Grade 8 to Grade 11 can attend school only once in a three-week cycle. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Hit with a combination of Covid-19 regulations and a dire shortage of space, and despite several court orders to force the Eastern Cape Education Department to build more classrooms, 1,147 learners at Attwell Madala Senior Secondary School in Mthatha can attend school once in a three-week cycle.

A parent and a member of the Attwell Madala Senior Secondary School’s governing body, Andreus Ndoyisile Fudumele, said the classroom shortage was severe for four overcrowded schools in the Mthatha area.

Parents at Attwell Madala, Dudumayo Senior Secondary School, Mnceba Senior Secondary School and Enduku Junior Secondary took the Eastern Cape Department of Education to court in 2018. In November that year, the late head of the department, Themba Kojana, who died in January 2021, said he agreed with the parents that the schools were severely overcrowded and that urgent intervention was required.

The next year, in a violent protest triggered by the overcrowded classrooms at the school, nine prefab classes were burnt down by angry learners and residents.

Abandoned construction projects at the Attwell Madala High School in Mthatha. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa, the schools, all low-fee or no-fee schools in Mthatha, Mqanduli, Mount Frere and Engcobo, had classes that had to house more than 100 children with five having to share a desk made for two.

Infrastructure norms published for South African schools say that no more than 40 learners should be allocated to a single classroom.

The department undertook to build the following temporary classrooms: 22 for Attwell Madala Senior Secondary School, 20 for Dudumayo Senior Secondary School, 21 for Mnceba Senior Secondary School and 11 for Enduku Junior Secondary School.

But after parents thought the issue had been settled in their favour, nothing happened. 

“Notwithstanding numerous letters from our attorneys requesting and then demanding that the undertaking be complied with, there was no progress and [court] papers were not filed. The matter was then set down for hearing on 18 February 2020,” Fudumele said.

A hearing was scheduled to take place in the Mthatha High Court in February 2020, but the Department of Education tried to have the matter postponed. 

The court declared the department’s failure to address the overcrowding at the four schools and the failure to provide safe and adequate temporary classrooms as unconstitutional. 

The department was again directed to provide emergency infrastructure at each of the four schools within 90 days. Attwell Madala had to get 22 classrooms, Enduku Junior Secondary School 11, Dudumayo Senior Secondary School 8 and Mnceba Senior Secondary 24.

Still the department did nothing.

“At Attwell Madala the situation is a complete crisis. The school has 19 classrooms which were heavily overcrowded prior to the closure of schools. Since reopening, the 260 grade 12 learners have been prioritised and they attend school four days a week. To keep numbers at a maximum of 25 per class to comply with the social distancing directions and to divide learners according to subjects, the Grade 12s are using 14 of the 19 classrooms. In order to maintain social distancing, each of the remaining 1,147 learners in Grade 8 to Grade 11 can only attend school once in a three-week cycle. Teaching and learning has virtually stopped for these learners,” Fudumele said.

At Enduku Junior Secondary School there is sufficient space to allow the Grade Rs and Grade 1s to come to school full-time, but all other grades (Grade 3 to Grade 9) follow a two-week on and two-week off rotation. 

“Ironically, when the classes are divided, the classes have approximately 30 learners in a classroom, which is close to the acceptable norm when there are no social distancing restrictions,” Fudumele said.

Grade 12 learners at Dudumayo Senior Secondary School attend school full time, but the classes in all of the other grades can only attend school either three or four times in an alternating 10-day cycle. 

 Similar to the other senior secondary schools, Mnceba SSS also prioritised classes for its 232 Grade 12 learners, with 20 to 30 a class. But the others come to school only every four days. 

Fudumele said in March 2020, after there had been no action from the department, they received a letter from its attorneys saying the department was doing its “best” to provide temporary classrooms. However, the “emergency closure of schools by reason of the coronavirus” [was] seriously hampering the department’s ability to prepare an answer to the court “as consultations with counsel and employees of the department were hampered”.

On 17 July 2020, when parents saw no progress in providing classrooms, their attorneys wrote to the department asking for a written plan including a caution that “the pandemic could no longer be used as an excuse for the further delay in filing the [department’s] answering affidavit”. 

“Identifying overcrowded schools and developing plans to address the overcrowding should not be contentious,” the attorneys for the parents wrote.

Fudumele pointed out that according to the regulations published by the minister for cooperative governance on 29 April 2020 and 28 May 2020, it was possible for construction of the classrooms to continue. 

“There was no response to this letter,” Fudumele said.

Lawyers for the parents again wrote to the department on 28 August 2020 to point out that the construction of classrooms had not yet begun and that no court papers had been filed on behalf of the department.

Again they received no answer.

“The circumstances at the four schools would be considerably different had the respondents’ complied with their constitutional obligations and ensured that each learner had sufficient classroom space in which to learn. The Education Department’s failure to comply with the court order directing them to provide classrooms is an egregious affront to the learners’ right to education, the learners’ dignity, and the rule of law. Even when social distancing is no longer required in classrooms, the constitutional breaches of the learners’ rights will persist until the classrooms are provided,” Fudumele said.

The parents are now asking the court to summon the head or acting head of the department in person to explain the reasons for the failure to comply with the order, and to state when the order will be complied with. 

According to its plans for bringing the province up to education norms, the department has estimated that it will need R11.7-billion — but it says it does not have the budget for this.

Cameron McConnachie, the attorney from the Legal Resources Centre appearing for the parents, said there are still signs on the Attwell Madala school grounds where construction on a new school building had begun, but this appears to have been abandoned.

“The Eastern Cape Department of Education agreed to build a completely new school building after we instituted proceedings,” he said, explaining that this followed intense protest actions from learners at the school. 

He said infrastructure budget cuts had, however, brought many projects to a standstill and this was why they insisted that part of the court order against the department included that they had to provide temporary classrooms. 

The spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Education, Mali Mtima, has not responded to a request for comment. DM/MC

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