How the worsening climate crisis will affect pupils

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Mud classroom at Ntsizwa Senior Secondary School in Mouth Ayliff. It is these schools that are at the highest rsik from climate change. Photo: Archive
Mud classroom at Ntsizwa Senior Secondary School in Mouth Ayliff. It is these schools that are at the highest rsik from climate change. Photo: Archive


South African pupils are affected by devastating droughts, extreme heat waves and flash floods caused by the climate crisis.

In a context of painful budget cuts and public school infrastructure breakdowns, it is worth considering how the education system, with its 15 million pupils and 400 000 teachers, is affected by the changes in climate.

Over the weekend of May 21, the SA Weather Service issued a level 10 weather warning for floods in KwaZulu-Natal, a little over a month after deadly floods in the province claimed about 448 lives and affected 630 schools – 124 of those schools were seriously damaged.

This was concerning, as the province struggled to reopen 72 schools in the weeks following the floods.

READ: Investigating climate change

Similar floods in the Eastern Cape resulted in more than 1 000 people being left without homes and 10 schools were damaged.


Scientists calculated that floods this year were twice as likely to occur and would be more intense due to global heating, demonstrating the climate emergency devastating the country.

Despite the devastating impact of the climate crisis and its associated extreme weather events on basic education, the sector is still on the periphery when it comes to the conversations about the climate.

It is against this backdrop that Section27 has responded to calls for submissions on the Climate Change Bill.

In our submission, we make, among other recommendations, a case for why the basic education sector needs to be included in the coordination of South Africa’s response to the climate crisis.

Below are some of the submissions we make on the impact of climate change on basic education and why it needs to be included in our response.


South Africa’s education system continues to be plagued by deep inequalities rooted in the legacy of apartheid, which persist 28 years into democracy. One of the ways in which this inequality manifests is that the most impoverished pupils are being subjected to poor and unsafe learning infrastructure.

Furthermore, the education system faces crippling Covid-19-induced public infrastructure backlogs. Spending on public school infrastructure, which occurs through the education infrastructure grant and the school infrastructure backlogs grant, saw a net amount of R1.7 billion being cut from programmes, with an additional R4.4 billion being reprioritised within infrastructure budgets for Covid-19-related measures.

Moreover, the spending on public school infrastructure increases by 4.5% (R710 million) while the school infrastructure backlogs grant decreases by 3.2% (R247 million) over the next three years, at a consumer price index (CPI) inflation rate of 4.5% over the period.

READ: FRIDAY BRIEFING | There's no Planet B: What are we going to do about climate change?

These real-term cuts to public school infrastructure funding constrict the basic education department’s ability to provide safe school infrastructure in response to climate change. They occur in a context of government’s consistent failure to meet deadlines contained in the regulations relating to minimum uniform norms and standards for public school infrastructure.

These regulations establish minimum benchmarks to give effect to governments’ constitutional and legal obligations to provide safe and adequate school infrastructure. Accordingly, government ought to have replaced all schools built from mud, asbestos, metal or wood by November 2016.

Government also ought to have ensured that all schools were provided with an adequate supply of classrooms, electricity, and water and sanitation, as well as electronic connectivity by the end of November 2020.

Fulfilment of government’s obligations in terms of the regulations would certainly put our education system in better stead to withstand the climate crisis.

Inappropriate and dilapidated school infrastructure is at an increased risk of suffering from extensive damage whenever disasters such as the ones that hit KwaZulu-Natal occur.

Moreover, when school infrastructure sustains extensive damage in a disaster, it takes precious time to rebuild or to make alternative arrangements for the continuation of teaching and learning.

One of Section27’s client schools in Limpopo has struggled with poor and unsafe infrastructure since 2012. Its infrastructure is severely dilapidated, which has made the school susceptible to extensive damage from storms.

In 2018, six years after the school made the department aware of the issue, it was hit by a storm. The roofs of two classroom blocks were blown off and some were left hanging precariously. Electronic devices and textbooks were also damaged.

A pupil at the school told Section27 that since the storm, the school was unsafe because of the hanging remains of the roof and classes had become overcrowded because the damaged classrooms could no longer be used. The school is yet to be fixed.

Climate-resilient infrastructure goes beyond classrooms being built with inappropriate materials that result in hot rooms. The climate crisis will increasingly affect water security and quality at schools.

Moreover, most water-borne bacteria causing infections thrive in warmer temperatures. However, according to the 2021 National Education Infrastructure Management System report, 5 836 South African schools have an unreliable water supply and a further 5 167 still use pit toilets.

For schools to be climate resilient, it is important that financial resources are directed to equipping them with adequate sanitation and eradicating pit latrines.


Climate change has been found to have an impact on food safety, particularly on the incidence and prevalence of food-borne diseases. This threat, coupled with the country’s high levels of unemployment and poverty, may limit many households’ access to food.

Furthermore, schoolchildren in rural areas whose families rely on subsistence farming are the worst affected as the increasing occurrence of floods results in more of their crops being washed away and in the death of their livestock, and increasing droughts result in even more crops and livestock dying.

Without adequate access to food, pupils struggle to get the nutrition they need throughout the day to learn and achieve good educational outcomes. Long term, it may result in poorer educational outcomes in rural communities, furthering education inequality in the country.

The national school nutrition programme (NSNP) provides 9 million pupils across 19 950 schools with meals every school day. It must increase over the next three years to match ordinary CPI inflation. Section27 proposes linking its increase to food price inflation, which the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group found to be 8.6% between January last year and this past January.

Equipping education departments with the funding to feed indigent pupils will insulate them from food security threats.


The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has stated that education is crucial to promoting climate action in that pupils are equipped with the understanding of climate change and its effects through the curriculum delivered by teachers.

However, this will be difficult to accomplish in a climate of cuts to education budget allocations, including school personnel.

In the next three years, funding for education personnel, specifically, is decreasing by 2.6% after accounting for inflation. Even this year’s National Treasury budget review noted that budget allocations would “result in fewer teachers and increased class sizes in some provinces”.

Budget cuts to teaching personnel affect the teacher: pupil ratio, which as of last year was 1:34.1 for state-paid teachers. These ratios are already detrimental to education outcomes and are more than double the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average ratios of 1:15 for primary education and 1:13 for secondary education.

Classes in many schools are overcrowded, which is considered to be a contributing factor to poor learning conditions in that a lack of space and fresh air, as well as high noise levels, result in stressful conditions under which pupils are forced to compete for attention.

Overcrowded classrooms coupled with rising temperatures result in intolerable learning conditions.


A recent study by children’s rights organisation Save the Children reported that children today will face seven times more heatwaves, and three times more river floods and crop failures than their grandparents.

The inclusion of climate change education through play in early childhood development (ECD) has been found to lead to a reduction in future carbon emissions.

However, at the current state of ECD, its potential as a tool to reduce future carbon emissions is threatened.

Despite government’s acknowledgment of the necessity for universal access to ECD, its budget only grows by 1.7% a year on average, which in real terms means funding is expected to decrease by 2.8% until 2024/25. The ECD sector is grossly underfunded and undersupported by government, with pupil attendance at ECD centres at less than 50% even before the pandemic began.

The climate crisis is an existential crisis that will continue to adversely affect education attainment in the country, particularly in impoverished and underresourced schools.

READ: Spain sizzles under unusual early heatwave

To effectively equip schools with the ability to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, the education system must be provided with the financial resources to do so. Cuts to the basic education budget threaten the ability of the education system to do so.

If government needed more reason to fix our education system, we hope the climate crisis offers the necessary impetus to fix basic education as a matter of urgency and before it is too late.

Lencoasa is a budget researcher and Brodie is a legal researcher at Section27 


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