The 2024 schooling year kicked off on a dismal note for many learners of public schools, across the country as classroom overcrowding and teacher shortages left them facing another year of learning under challenging conditions.

“Overcrowding is a big issue in Alexandra schools,” says Ms Yengwa, life orientation and English teacher at Pholosho Combined School. “When I first started working in Alex in 2019, I was allocated a class with 67 learners. Some didn’t even have chairs to sit on, and they would fight over the furniture because it wasn’t enough. In a grade eight class I was allocated, kids had to walk on top of their tables when they needed to pass or make their way out of their seats.”

For teachers, classroom overcrowding is taking a toll. “I feel so exhausted, honestly, it’s tiring. The workload is way too much, you cannot even find time to eat because you  must be on watch because the kids fight and bully each other in class. A lot of teachers go through anxiety and depression as a result of the workload. It all takes a toll,” says Ms Yengwa.

This is not to mention how difficult it can be to manage and maintain discipline in an overcrowded class, that can often become overly chaotic to teach, adds Ms Yengwe.

An overcrowded classroom environment also robs learners from learning at their own pace and according to their own unique learning style. For learners struggling and in need of the extra attention, the lack of one-on-one attention only exacerbates their frustration and leaves them lagging further behind the curriculum. As a result, these learners are more likely to have lower test scores and grades.

Basil Manuel, executive director at the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA), said that children can’t be expected to learn important foundational skills like reading in environments where teachers can’t afford to give one-on-one attention to every learner.

Ms Yengwa adds, “It’s challenging to give attention to each learner. Instead, we’re forced to move on as if they all understood, unless a child specifically asks for extra help or clarification. And even then, there’s only so much extra time we can afford as teachers.”

And despite the 2023 matric pass rate being hailed as “extraordinary” by the minister of basic education, critics say these results are unreliable as they do not account for the number of learners dropping out of school before matriculating. Overcrowding is a major reason for learners quitting school early on, as classroom conditions become too challenging for them to endure.

Initiatives like the Rose-Act programme, an educational initiative facilitated by Alexandra Township-based non-profit, Rays of Hope, are fundamental in ensuring learners within the public schooling system are able to not only keep up with the curriculum but are equipped with the tools they need to successfully navigate tertiary studies in the future.

Rays of Hope welcomes the public to become part of the change by volunteering time to tutor extra Maths and English classes for learners in Grade 4 to Grade 11 at Rose-Act Saturday School. For more information, reach out to info@raysofhope.co.za.