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When has a school reached capacity? The tough choices facing principals as overcrowding and Covid-19 take their toll


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

About 80% of all schools in South Africa have reached capacity. Some are far over capacity. Most schools have many more than 35 learners per class. Hundreds of schools need to be constructed, and this is impossible.

It is that time of year again when schools struggle with the intake of learners for the next school year. A stressful time indeed for school principals.

The question many principals ask themselves every year is: “When is my school full?” In my day as principal it was often pointed out to me that a school is not full for a child who lives within walking distance of the school.

I refer to two incidents which in my view can serve as a guideline. According to the Gauteng MEC for Education more than 2,000 of the Grade 8s who applied to Alberton High School will be unsuccessful, because the school only has space for 210 Grade 8 learners. After a phone call or two I made the simple sum: six Grade 8 classes at 35 learners each = 210.

The second incident is the court case in February 2018 when the Gauteng Department of Education wanted to force Overvaal High School to accept 55 learners living in close proximity to the school. The Supreme Court, however, decided in favour of the school. Overvaal argued that the school had reached its capacity, in other words the school was full.

The court’s decision has wide implications. It means that about 80% of all schools in South Africa are full. Some are far over capacity. My observation is that most schools have many more than 35 learners per class. What will happen if these schools approach the court to classify their schools as “full”? This will mean that many learners will have no access to a school unless hundreds of schools are constructed. And this is impossible.

In the recent interim Budget of the minister of finance it became clear that South Africa is basically bankrupt. Government debt amounts to around R4-trillion and grows at a rate of 16% interest every day. This year we are going to collect R312-billion less in income tax that was budgeted for, but at the same time we will spend R36-billion more because of Covid-19. Thus, there is no money for new schools, nor for toilets, water or salary increases.

The government must take the blame for the fact that most schools will be “overly full” for a long time still. Covid-19 will not disappear overnight. For the sake of social distancing, learners will still have to go to school on alternative days, which will inevitably impact negatively on standards.

Principals will have no choice other than to accept learners in their catchment area. Author Richard Paul Evans said: “We can deny reality, but we can’t deny the consequences of denying reality.”

To have 35 learners in your class is ideal, but within the context of South Africa it is impossible. Sad as it may be, it is unfortunately the reality of our country.

However, it can no longer be expected that poor schools should carry this burden alone. DM


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  • Belinda Roxburgh says:

    Such a pity that we have not spent all this Covid money on schools and education and addressing real issues to uplift our children. Also a great pity that the fear of this virus in SA is still being perpetuated when it is clear that this is far from the biggest threat to our people. It is tragic and criminal that children are the biggest losers in this covid overreaction and continue to lose big time: Their immunity from being oversterilised and mask wearing (which means next year flu season will be a nightmare), real diseases still to come as a result of low vaccination numbers, teenage pregnancies, malnutrition from economic devastation not to mention their psychological and emotional wellbeing. And it astounds me that when we look at the hard facts and numbers that they are still being kept out of school? It really doesn’t make any sense at all! What I also struggle to understand is why PANDA continues to be ignored by the powers that be (and journalists) when all their predictions including the economic fall out of lockdown causing way more deaths have been spot on.

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