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Media statement: Equal Education calls on National Treasury to stop cuts to the basic education budget, so that all learners can return to school safely!

22 February 2022

Media statement: Equal Education calls on National Treasury to stop cuts to the basic education budget, so that all learners can return to school safely!

When Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana delivers his first budget speech tomorrow, 23 February 2022, he must ensure that enough money is given to education. Equal Education (EE) will continue to fight for this, as a vital step for fixing the many challenges in our public schools. As all learners return to classrooms full time, it is crucial that the schooling system is given enough resources to ensure that this can happen safely. Too many learners are returning to schools that still do not have enough water, safe and dignified toilets, electricity, classrooms, or teachers – this cannot continue! 

The effect of COVID-19 on learners, schools and communities has been severe. As a result of schools being closed in the early days of the pandemic, and then the rotational timetable system (with children only attending school on some days so that social distancing could be practised), learners were outside of the classroom for long periods of time. This led to children not having access to school learning materials such as workbooks and stationery, or to their teachers, which has resulted in learning losses. Remote learning (learning from home) also meant that learners were unable to access important safety nets provided by schools, such as a safe environment for the day, psycho-social support and school meals.  

Despite this, National Treasury did not give schools more money to help with the extraordinary challenges of schooling during a pandemic, and instead took money away from basic education. In June 2020, a total of R1.7 billion was cut from school infrastructure grants with another R4.4 billion of grant money used for new COVID-19 costs in the sector. This is part of government’s decision to continue implementing austerity budgeting, which means cutting what government spends on supporting the poorest and most vulnerable communities, in order to decrease its debt.  

However, for government to fix our schools, it is not just more money that is needed. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) and provincial education departments are not efficiently and effectively spending the money that they do have. Money is lost through mismanagement, wasteful expenditure, or is simply underspent. South Africa’s Auditor General, in a presentation to Parliament’s basic education committee, highlighted that R818 million was spent ‘irregularly’ or in a fraudulent manner by the DBE in the 2019 financial year alone (more than double the amount from the previous year). The impact of this is that learners are denied the limited resources that the basic education sector has. 

We call on National Treasury to take its oversight role seriously and to make sure that the education departments are accountable for how they spend their money. The Draft Public Procurement Bill is an opportunity to fix some of the problems – it must make information about projects publicly available so that it is easier for the public to monitor spending and must create accessible processes for school communities to report contractors who waste money in fixing or building schools.

Return of learners to school full time and the need for school infrastructure

As learners are back in their classrooms full time, it is critical that government ensures that more classrooms and schools are urgently built. In May 2021, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) indicated that five out of every seven schools in the province were built more than 40 years ago and are “reaching the end of useful life”. The WCED estimates that over the next decade, at least 14 schools need to be built every year. In 2020 the DBE reported to Parliament that almost 2 000 school infrastructure projects, funded through the Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG), and that include both infrastructure maintenance and the building of new schools, had to either be cancelled or delayed because of budget cuts. Whether it is because National Treasury is choosing to not give enough money for schools or because the money that education departments do have is being lost to poor procurement decisions or wasteful expenditure, broken schools make it harder for teaching and learning to take place, and can even endanger the lives of learners and teachers. 

We welcome President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a new infrastructure delivery mechanism for education. In his 2022 State of the Nation Address he said the new delivery mechanism will “address issues that affect the delivery of school infrastructure”. However, we call on Minister Godongwana to provide details about how this new model will address the chronic service delivery failures of the past and ensure that learners attend schools that urgently address the inequality of the system. All schools should be safe, should protect the dignity of learners and teachers, and nurture quality teaching and learning. 

Impact of overcrowding on learner safety and quality of teaching and learning

It is alarming that National Treasury acknowledged, in last year’s budget documents, that there will be less money to pay teachers and other education staff over the next three years. Treasury has admitted that this will lead to bigger class sizes, especially in schools that do not charge fees, and will likely negatively affect learning outcomes. This will only worsen the existing inequality in our education system. 

EE’s new report on school overcrowding highlights that overcrowded classrooms negatively impact the ability of teachers and learners to create an effective learning environment:

  • Learners feel neglected and disengage from learning;
  • Learners fall behind which may lead to high failure rates; 
  • There are increased instances of bullying, school absence and peer pressure;
  • Teachers struggle to effectively teach in these classrooms, and are often overwhelmed and overworked; and
  • Schools see great furniture shortages.

On top of this, overcrowding in schools poses a threat to learners’ and teachers’ safety, especially in times of COVID-19 – overused infrastructure falls apart quickly and hot classrooms with little ventilation do not have enough space for social distancing. Therefore, with massive learning losses as a result of learners not being in school full-time and the threat of COVID-19 transmission, it is now even more important to get rid of overcrowding in schools. 

In our report on overcrowding, No Space For Us, the Deputy Principal of Amos Maphanga Secondary School speaks to the impact of overcrowding: 

“Learners and teachers don’t want to be at school. Sometimes they fall asleep in class. There is heat and because there is too little furniture some have to stand or sit on a table. Furniture breaks because of overcrowding – they fight for a chair and then it breaks and now we’re always repairing. Some learners might not have a chair the entire day.”

A learner at Phandimfundo Secondary School said:

“Teachers do not get time to finish marking and they do not have time to give us our papers to see how we performed. Personally, I am affected as I am not able to ask the teacher to explain things that I do not understand. The teachers will also be overwhelmed by the amount of papers they have to mark.”

As learners return to school every day, we see the impact of overcrowding play out – at one school some worried parents have pulled their children out of school. At another school, it has been reported in the media that learners and teachers are making use of alternative spaces, such as storerooms, that are unsafe and not appropriate to be classrooms. As South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) spokesperson and teacher Trevor Shaku has said: “Much should be celebrated about the end of rotation. However, educators are re-introduced to an old normal that is abnormal — overcrowding”.

A senior teacher at George Mbilase Primary explained to us while we were researching overcrowding in Gauteng schools: 

At the end of the day, we need results, and it is just not possible because of the numbers [of learners]. The cost is learning and education… We are doing our utmost best, but it is not enough and it won’t work.” 

Without enough, urgent financial investment in reducing overcrowded classrooms in schools across the country, the consequences are severe. 


Looking ahead to tomorrow’s budget speech, EE calls on Minister Godongwana and National Treasury to:

  • Reverse the cuts to the education sector that have been made over the last two years and ensure that funding for education at the very least keeps up with inflation (the increase in cost of goods and services). End austerity budgeting now! 
  • Speed up the signing into law of the Draft Public Procurement Bill to help fight corruption and mismanagement in the building of school infrastructure.
  • Ensure that there are accessible ways for school communities to report wrongdoing with school building projects.
  • Ensure that the National School Nutrition Programme is given enough money to ensure that learners in all qualifying schools have access to school meals. 
  • Take its oversight role seriously and help fight mismanagement of public funds allocated to the education departments. 


If quoting directly from this statement, please quote the authors: Jane Borman (EE Parliamentary Researcher) and Katherine Sutherland (EE Researcher). 

To arrange a media interview, contact: Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) or 082 924 1352.

Leanne Jansen-ThomasMedia statement: Equal Education calls on National Treasury to stop cuts to the basic education budget, so that all learners can return to school safely!