Overaged pupils are accused of bullying teachers and fellow pupils, and are said to be responsible for the high levels of violence and intimidation in the classroom.
Some teachers say they live in fear of being attacked by mature learners who are often aggressive, and they are forced to tread carefully in the classroom so as to not aggravate them.
The issue of overage learners was thrown into the spotlight in June when Joburg’s Forest High School pupil Daniel Bakwela, 16, was stabbed to death, allegedly by 20-year-old Mohamed Mwela, a Grade 11 pupil at the school. The two were said to be members of rival gangs.
During Mwela’s bail hearing in the Johannesburg Magistrate Court, magistrate Basimane Molwana slammed Gauteng Education’s admission policy for allowing a 20-year-old learner to still be in high school.
“It appears that there are adults studying at Forest High School. Teachers there are teaching pupils who are almost adults or are adults. The deceased himself was a 16-year-old and (in) Grade 8; meaning that he could have finished matric at the age of 21,” said Molwana.
He asked why an age limit had not be applied at the school.
“The department should facilitate alternative measures to encourage the accused to further his studies and if possible, to relocate to another school.”
In the Vaal, teachers who spoke to the Sunday Independent on condition of anonymity, said they were constantly provoked by learners.
Teachers at Maxeke Secondary and Beverly Hills High said violence in the schools was perpetuated by older learners who had been to initiation schools.
“It’s tough and you can never do anything right. When you shout at these older learners, they become aggressive and shout back. If you discipline them, be prepared for them to fight back. I’ve witnessed several instances where learners attacked teachers. Some behave this way because they are old and feel that they deserve respect from us.
“Last week, we were dealing with a case of a 19-year-old Grade 10 pupil who refused to obey an instruction to leave the classroom from a female teacher,” said a teacher from Tharabollo Secondary School, adding that older girls were also not innocent and often demanded that they be “touched in a sexy way”.
Unity Secondary School principal James Makhubu said he had recently suspended eight older learners for being disruptive at the Daveyton- based school.
“They wanted to smoke and form gangs in the school yard. I charged three of them with possession of dagga. These are Grade 11 and 12 learners who are aged between 18 and 19,” said Makhubu.
He said some of the older pupils came to urban schools from rural areas, where schools were far away from their homes and had been forced to start school at a much older age.
Sicelo Bhengu, president of the Educators Union of South Africa and a teacher in Inanda township, Kwazulu-Natal, said their members report at least 12 cases of harassment and violence perpetuated by learners each week. “Some learners sell drugs and get involved in illegal activities in the classroom and expect teachers to be silent,” he said.
Bhengu believes that some of these “notorious” learners have had a brush with the law and are in school as a way of keeping them out of prison.
“I feel some of these learners returned to school after being arrested and pleaded with magistrates that they were still at school.
“As a union, we have made a call for SAPS reservists to be deployed in schools to search these learners before they enter the premises. We believe this will help to eradicate violence.”
The SA Democratic Teachers Union spokesperson, Nomusa Cembi, admitted that some teachers had to deal with learners who are almost the same age as them and that often led to challenges when it came to discipline.
However, she emphasised that it was a prerogative of the Department of Education to provide safety measures for teachers at schools.
Basic Education Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the Constitution afforded all learners a right to basic education and not all of them progressed at the same pace.
He said as long as overaged pupils were still in the system, the department would support them.