Tuesday, November 28, 2023

SA schools still plagued by poor infrastructure, overcrowding: report

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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.”

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


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