SUNDAY TIMES - SA's most crowded school: 200 pupils in one class,,
Sunday Times News By MATTHEW SAVIDES, 2016-03-20

SA's most crowded school: 200 pupils in one class

Teacher Simphiwe Tshangana at St patrick's Senior Secondary School near Mthatha

More than 200 pupils cram into a single classroom at what could be South Africa's most overcrowded school.

The 205 teenagers in Grade 11E at St Patrick's Senior Secondary School in Libode in the Eastern Cape sit shoulder to shoulder in the poorly-ventilated classroom, as many as five sharing a double desk.

One Grade 10 class is so full that pupils sit on chairs with their books on their laps because there is no space for desks.

There are just 14 classrooms for the more than 1630 pupils at the no-fee school - where G rade 8 and 9 pupils share a single classroom.

The smallest class has 73 pupils - almost twice the Department of Basic Education's recommendation of no more than 40 pupils per class.

Classes are cancelled for all other grades when the Grade 11s and matrics write exams, because every classroom is needed.

When the Sunday Times visited St Patrick's this week, some Grade 11C pupils were writing a test outside because there was not enough space inside.

The school, which boasted a 100% matric pass rate in 2014 and a 75% pass rate last year, has been asking the education department for help for years.

The department was heavily criticised this month for failing to spend more than R500-million of its infrastructure budget, which it has since had to return to the National Treasury.

It was almost impossible to learn in this environment, said principal Vuyani Langa, but it is a reality that the school, about 10km outside Mthatha, has to deal with daily.

"The conditions are hectic. We are aware that many of the learners are left behind while you are teaching, because nobody can take control of that massive number of learners. The overcrowding of the classes renders teaching and learning inadequate," said Langa.

The school, aided by the Legal Resources Centre, lodged papers in the High Court in Mthatha on Friday, demanding that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, and the national and provincial departments build 10 "emergency" classrooms before the start of the third term in July.

The school also wants 19 vacant teacher posts filled.

In February, the LRC wrote to the provincial department highlighting the problem. LRC attorney Cameron McConnachie said the school needed urgent attention.

Langa said it was difficult to keep pupil numbers in check.

"Schools grow because of their reputation and because of their results. From 2010 to 2014, we consistently got between 90% and 100%. Parents are voting with their feet," he said.

The school offers maths and science, which are not always available at nearby schools.

Langa said cries for help - from as early as 2008 - had fallen on deaf ears. He even wrote to Motshekga, in January last year, about the problem.

"We communicated with the [education] department until we were tired of communicating. There is nothing we have not tried, no avenue we have not used," he said.

Eastern Cape education department spokesman Loyiso Pulumani criticised Langa for accepting more pupils than his school could handle.

"The department takes a dim view of instances where principals ignore departmental regulations and allow too many learners in. We've taken a position that we are going to charge principals who ignore regulations ... it is completely unacceptable," said Pulumani.

A classroom known as The Shack at St Patrick's Senior Secondary Image: ROGAN WARD

He said government-provided scholar transport should be used to ensure pupils went to other schools instead of packing into St Patrick's.

Pulumani said a tender would soon be issued for temporary "mobile classrooms", and that St Patrick's was likely to benefit from this.

The LRC letter claims the school has been allocated R5.6-million for infrastructure in the 2016-17 year, and R2.3-million for the next year. But no plans for spending it are in place.

Langa said: "There is no documentation in front of me. I'm beginning to doubt it will happen because they [the department] have been saying this year in, year out."

Governing body chairman Lulamile Mcetywa, who has two children at St Patrick's, said he was disappointed in the department.

"This should not be the condition of a school that is producing good results. I used to think that if you are doing things right, you would attract many people, especially in the education department, to focus on the school. But I've found that it means nothing."

Not enough space in his classroom for learning...

Simphiwe Tshangana is a big man, but even if he wasn't, he would still be unable to move around his packed classroom.

Tshangana teaches Grade 10 and 11 history, English and life orientation at St Patrick's Senior Secondary School in Libode in the Eastern Cape.

One of his classes is Grade 11 E, which has205 pupils.

"This class is too big. While you are teaching in the front, others are making a noise at the back. You have to make sure that you control the class and you can't even identify the learners by name because there are more than 200.

"It is not easy. And it's even harder for the learners," he said.

But despite the difficulties he remains committed to his pupils.

One of those is Sandisiwe Mnyaka, who said: "It is very difficult to learn because there is a huge number in this class."

The 16-year-old said she battled to hear her teacher over the noise of her classmates, even if they were simply fanning themselves to try to keep cool.

Classmate Lindokuhle Simunca said it got so hot inside that it was impossible to concentrate.

Mnyaka said: "We need more teachers and classes. If we had smaller classes we would be able to concentrate. And then we would definitely get good results."