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SA schools still plagued by ‘historical infrastructure backlogs’, overcrowding – Equal Education report

SA schools still plagued by ‘historical infrastructure backlogs’, overcrowding – Equal Education report
Equal Education's report found that school infrastructure affects teaching and learning. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele)

Finding a ‘correlation’ between poor infrastructure and quality of education, an Equal Education report calls for education authorities to eradicate infrastructure backlogs.

The schooling sector still faces inherent challenges despite great efforts by the post-apartheid government to transform and expand schooling.

This is according to a report, “Schooling under Unusual Conditions: Research into how school infrastructure shapes teaching and learning in SA”.

The 48-page report was released by Equal Education (EE) on Monday, 20 November 2023 in the run-up to 29 November 2023 – the 10th  anniversary of the signing of norms and standards for public school infrastructure by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

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Produced by EE’s research and policy department, the report sought to examine the relationship between infrastructure and teaching and learning, using a nationally representative sample of individuals aged 20 and younger and drawn from the 2019 General Household Survey.

It says a review of the empirical literature shows that the physical conditions of schools, including classroom size, affect schooling outcomes, although the impact varies widely across contexts.

In the executive summary, the report says that nearly three decades into democracy, the post-apartheid government is still struggling to undo the inequalities in the schooling system that were created by the apartheid regime.

“In many ways, schooling in South Africa has improved as government policies ensure that all children in the country go to school, at least until Grade 9,” it reads.

Access to schooling or the attendance rate in the country was near universal, since almost all children of schoolgoing age and who are meant to be at school, were enrolled.

Teachers’ quality of teaching and performance, as well as their general attitude towards their job, are greatly affected by poor school conditions or facilities.

“In spite of efforts to transform and expand schooling and the gains made in that regard, the sector still experiences serious challenges that are contributing to a learning crisis in the country.”

The report continues that the quality of schooling is compromised because pupils are not gaining enough of the basic skills and knowledge needed for further education or to lead productive lives.

“A major contributor and often neglected part of this learning crisis is the physical conditions at schools, which are not always favourable to good teaching and learning.”

Many times, the report states, conversations about the root causes of this learning crisis focus on questions of curricular competencies and teaching resources and approaches, without much attention to school environment exposures that produce or hinder desired outcomes.

“This research sought to refocus the conversation by looking at the relationship between conditions in the physical school environment and teaching and learning using statistical techniques.”


The report says that findings from the analyses largely confirmed what was known to be true, as well as other interesting and unexpected things.

“Generally, insufficient classroom infrastructure or overcrowding conditions (measured as classes too big/too many learners) emerged as a consistent and important environmental factor at the school level, with a negative impact on motivation for both learners and teachers.”

SA schools

Broken school furniture at Botse Botse Secondary School in Pretoria on 7 February 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Specifically, overcrowding increased the likelihood of pupils and teachers being absent from school regularly.

“In addition, and more importantly, it was revealed that teachers’ quality of teaching and performance, as well as their general attitude towards their job, are greatly affected by poor school conditions or facilities.”

This, the report states, is concerning because teachers remain key to pupils’ schooling and learning outcomes.

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Since learning outcomes in the country are low compared with other countries, together with the high school infrastructure backlogs, the report says the government needs to reconsider its efforts and increase investments in improving infrastructure conditions in schools.

“The findings of the analyses have shown that the physical school environment can serve a dual purpose in tackling the learning crises in the country. This research report provides information on school-level factors that shape teaching and learning in public schools that will be useful for progressive educational policy reforms.”

Sector picture

The report says the sector is still plagued by substantial historical infrastructure backlogs that continue to shape the schooling experiences of many pupils.

Second, learning outcomes in the majority of the country’s schools remain low despite important pedagogical interventions.

“Together, these two issues have contributed to a learning crisis that disproportionately affects children from vulnerable and marginalised households and communities.”

Individuals’ age, sex and race play a major role in shaping school participation, engagement and eventual performance or learning, more so than environmental factors.

The current state of the schooling sector, the report states, not only infringes on some pupils’ constitutional right to basic schooling but it threatens the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal of “free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education for all girls and boys leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes by 2030”.

The report states that despite the constitutional and human rights imperatives to improve schooling outcomes in the country, international, regional and national assessments demonstrate that children in South Africa are not even sufficiently competent in basic skills such as literacy or numeracy.

“The results of the statistical analyses broadly corroborated important assertions about the contributors of school outcomes whilst revealing context-specific information about what shapes these outcomes.”

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Concerning the factors contributing to learning outcomes in the country, the report states that it became clear that individuals’ age, sex and race play a major role in shaping school participation, engagement and eventual performance or learning, more so than environmental factors.

As far as environmental factors were concerned, the locale (measured as the province of residence) influences learning outcomes more directly than the conditions of the immediate school environment, although in varying degrees.

“Although there may be province-specific dynamics at play that the analyses could not fully capture, evidently the school-level conditions are not as impactful as the broader structural context in which the school is situated.”

However, poor classroom infrastructure or overcrowding (measured as too many pupils for the physical size of the classroom) emerged as an important school-level factor with a negative impact on attendance.

“Specifically, the results showed that overcrowded conditions increase the odds of learners being absent from school. This finding is especially concerning because learners missing school has far-reaching consequences, including the likelihood of learners falling behind or failing (poor academic performance) and ultimately leaving school before completing (dropout).”

The report says that while the results showed that learning outcomes are largely explained by individuals’ sociodemographic factors such as age, sex and race, teaching outcomes tended to be greatly shaped by environmental factors.

The analyses revealed that teacher attendance (an important indicator of teacher behaviour and motivation) is greatly shaped by the condition or state of the school environment.

Specifically, poor facilities and classroom infrastructure negatively affect teachers’ skills, performance and motivation to work.

“Arguably, the conditions of the school environment indirectly shape learning outcomes for one important reason, teachers remain key to learners’ schooling and learning seeing as teacher skills and motivation are directly linked to learning.”

This suggested that whatever affected teachers’ motivation, skills and approaches would eventually affect pupils’ learning and achievements.

Policy implications

Given the extent of the country’s learning (quality) crisis, the report says the findings will be useful for policy reform beyond standard pedagogical interventions.

“The findings provide information on school-level factors that shape teaching and learning in SA, proving useful for progressive educational policy reforms.”

The following policy considerations are recommended:

  • Provincial education departments must urgently fulfil their legal obligations in terms of the norms and standards for school infrastructure and eradicate infrastructure backlogs to ensure all schools can deliver quality schooling for learners;
  • National Treasury must prioritise and provide progressive infrastructure funding and ensure efficient spending by education departments, implementing agents and contractors involved in infrastructure provisioning to schools;
  • The Basic Education Department must develop Binding School Capacity Norms to ensure an ideal distribution of pupils across schools to avoid overcrowding conditions; and
  • Education departments must develop a forward-looking infrastructure plan that puts an end to current overcrowding and prevents future overcrowding.


“Although the results of the statistical analyses are largely consistent with earlier findings linking infrastructure to teaching and learning, the report is not without limitations,” the report reads.

The present findings suggested that understanding the determinants of schooling outcomes was conceptually and empirically difficult since there was no simple or single way of estimating the impact of individual, socioeconomic and school-level factors on outcomes.

“Therefore, more rigorous research is needed to understand the link between school infrastructure and quality teaching and learning outcomes.”

In addition, results of the statistical findings should be interpreted with caution. 

“Although the analyses used a nationally representative dataset that allows for the generalisation of findings to the larger population, the data is still cross-sectional, so the results can only be interpreted as associations and not causal relationships.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colin Murray says:

    The current Government has had nearly thirty years to remedy the effects of Apartheid . In a much lesser period the entire Europe was rebuilt following the world war !

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      This is not the effects of Apartheid. That broken furniture in the picture for example – those chairs are not more than 5 years old. The “black” school buildings that were burned down in the mid ’70s were reconstructed by the end of the ’70s. The school infrastructure handed over in 1994 may not have been extensive, but it was in good order.
      Unfortunately, “this” is about so many things that are wrong with the current administration. Getting rid of experienced and dedicated white teaching staff and administrators with golden handshakes saw the best of them migrate to the private schooling sector and the rest enjoying early retirement with new work opportunities outside of education. What a great loss to public education! And all Msindisi Fengu can do is bleat about the legacy of Apartheid as the cause of this. Utter crap, with all due respect. Get your hands dirty and go do some basic research. You don’t even have to leave a metro centre to do that – just visit say 10 or 15 schools within your metro that have transformed principals and Boards of Governors. They have little to no education or administrative skills, which is compounded by a general lack of purpose and dedication to office.
      Start calling a spade a spade.

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    The MAJOR problem is the lack of interest in teaching from SADTU educators in particular. They refuse to have assessments done to check their competency, they often know little more than the learners in the subjects they are supposed to be teaching, they are absent from school for Union meetings that are ALWAYS held in school time, they run their businesses from schools. All too often they are also the reason for teenage pregnancies. I know that these are generalisations and that there are some EXCELLENT teachers even in underfunded schools but in such schools there is a determination from the principals down to the educators to get things done.

  • Ruth Kellow says:

    I am shocked by this report and at the same time not surprised! In my view this report reflects exactly where South Africa is at the moment: 30 years of mismanagement. Wasn’t the inequality created by the apartheid system one of the key issues to be solved? Why can a teacher not teach in a poor environment? If the classrooms are overcrowded why don’t the teachers complain to their local government or school boards? 30 years are more than enough time to turn things around, get the move and do something! Turn things around! The government wasted the lives of several generations, shame on them!

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    Dear Mr Fengu. The government has had almost 30 years to rectify the historical issues. After the Second World War, Germany had been bombed to ruins and flattened. Not one brick stood on another. Did the Germans blame anyone and point fingers? No they buckled down, did what was necessary to rebuild the country, and within 15 years were a world financial powerhouse again. If we look at the facts the truth will become apparent. Firstly under Professor Bengu, thousands of experienced teachers were shown the door in favour of less experienced teachers. The Outcomes Based system was a failure and abandoned. The pass rates were reduced to make 33% a pass rate, and still matric results have been disappointing to say the least. I can’t see how blame can be apportioned to historical factors when children now often don’t have the necessary schoolbooks, when classrooms are vandalized, furniture destroyed, and the quality of the teaching often leaves a lot to be desired. The education “system” and I use the word advisedly, joins the list of other failures in our country like SAA, Denel, most municipalities, Eskom, SASSA, Healthcare – the list is seemingly endless. I believe the graduation rate is about 15%. That means that 85% of matriculants failed. South Africa is ranked last of 278 countries – bottom of the class – for Maths and Science literacy and these are the most important skills required for our country’s future progress

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    It seems to me that with the education system, due to government incompetence, bad planning, corruption and apathy, many children are the victims. Many matriculants today have not been prepared for higher education or even for making their way in the world, when they are our country’s the future workers and leaders. What is needed are new brooms who are not looking over their shoulders to blame others, to buckle down and do what is necessary to turn this sorry ship around. We owe it to the children.

  • Bruce Gatland says:

    30 years later it’s still apartheids fault?

  • Graham Nelson says:

    The ANC got into power and the first thing they did was to go on ANC enrichment drive disguised as an arms (which we certainly didn’t need) buying spree.
    Since then they’ve stolen everything that isn’t bolted down and broken everything that is …
    They desperately need something to blame for not doing the basics for their own people for 30 YEARS …. the apartheid line is wearing a bit thin. Hopefully next year their support won’t fall for the T-shirt and KFC bribe and will vote with their heads for a decent future….

  • David McCormick says:

    Socioeconomic factors do create an unequal learning environment in South Africa however a small number of schools in low-income areas have had success stories where school grades have been dramatically improved by a core of dedicated teachers and sound management.

    Instead of highlighting why this small percentage of schools is successful, the Equal Education article skips around the two large elephants in the room, and ducks behind “apartheid” so as not to offend the beasts.

    Elephant number one: While the report may be correct with regard to the socioecononic factors caused by apartheid, the maintenance of school infrastructure has nothing to do with apartheid. The Department of Education should be maintaining the infrastructure. As this is not their core skill, they may turn to the Department of Public Works (an oxymoron in South Africa) for assistance. Abysmal school maintenance has nothing to do with apartheid, and lots to with corruption, lack of value for money spent, poor management etc. Further, within many townships and villages, town management has employed many people who do not have the ability to maintain water, sewer, electricty and communications services that the schools require. Apartheid not to blame here either.

    Elephalt number two. In most schools, on any given day, many children are within the school grounds but not attending classes due to absent teachers. Yes, the conditions at these schools can be abysmal however the article appears to attribute all poor learning outcomes to lack of maintenance and overcrowding, and none to the quality and discipline of teachers. It feels like the writer is scared to upset the teachers. Nothing to do with apartheid – everything to do with poor teacher training, intimidation of management by teachers, and again, a lack of management.

    Equal Education is urgently required in South Africa to redress inequality entrenched during colonial and apartheid rule however the real causes of the current inequality in education have to be addressed.

  • Johann Crafford says:

    Oh please, give me a break. Stop blaming apartheid, colonialism, slavery, the hole in the ozone layer or whatever else for this government’s many failures. It’s about time the ANC develops a backbone and take responsibility for its own incompetence. Blaming someone else for your own failures is called the coward’s defence.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Sure: steal all the money, do nothing, then blame apartheid.

    My brothers, you are embarrassing me and underestimating my intelligence.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Why on earth do we need this report or more rigorous research when all these problems and outcomes are as plain as day to anyone from children to teachers to parents to school bodies and to politicians. It’s time to do right by children and fix this mess not to go on wringing our hands over reports.

  • Blingtofling HD says:

    Why do I feel as if I am in a parallel universe? The report referred to is an excellent piece of academic niceties. Wording their way around the ginormous elephant in the room. Starting off with a sprinkling of education’s failures of course the pig in the room – good old standby crowd pleaser Apartheid inheritance. And so the report goes on and highlights the problems known to South Africans, and compounded eversince Ms Angie took the reigns. That long report – reported on – can be summurised as such. Ms Angie is solely responsible for not using her decades long ‘expertise’ – no-one have ever questioned ?- and a big wack of money, and a cert position in parlement year after year, to the benefit of uplifting our youth. I am suspicious by nature and always ask myself ‘I wonder why buildings, absenteism, demotivation, etc. Etc. Always forms part of reports on our education malaise?’ And there sits the huge elephant in the room, chewing gum. Incompetence. Revered, untouchable under the radar. A solid cadre you can depend on to educate the next generation for perpetuating a failed state. Just say it already! We do not need another ‘investigation’ we need other leaders in that (un) Holy place called Parlement.

  • Wacky Me says:

    This while the regime eat caviar and drink R1000+ whiskey

  • Andre Reinecke says:

    Dubai was built in 30 years – The ANC stole, just with the Guptas, in excess of R50 Billion, and counting, in less that 3o years. And looting has not stopped. How could they have transformed education with all this looted money?

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