Warning over ‘power grab’ at schools in South Africa

 ·21 Nov 2022

Trade union Solidarity says that new laws proposed under the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA bill) are a poorly veiled attempt by the national government to centralise power and control over schools in the country, taking away parents’ say in their children’s education.

The union will present its opinions on the laws to the portfolio committee on basic education on Tuesday (21 November), joining a raft of other interest groups and stakeholders that have made their views known over the last two weeks.

In a statement ahead of the presentation, Solidarity said that if the Amendment Bill becomes law, governing bodies would ultimately forfeit all their powers to the state.

The group said that the bill offers a way for the government to centralise its power over schools and learners while the rights of governing bodies would be undermined and, in some cases, destroyed.

“Clearly, the state’s intention is to centralise the education system. Enactment of this Amendment Bill will have tragic consequences for school communities and the children who get their education at public schools,” it said.

“Solidarity is of the opinion that it is of crucial importance that…the quality of the education learners get remain in the hands of the parents – the people who have a direct and immediate stake in the quality thereof.”

The view that the proposed laws will remove power from the hands of parents and governing bodies and place it within government – open to political interference and abuse – has become a central theme in the pushback against the bill.

The issue was first raised in this manner by the Democratic Alliance (DA), which previously noted that the amendments are effectively politicising education by taking the power out of the hands of the communities and parents who know what is best for their children and putting it in the hands of the government.

Several commentators and presenters before the portfolio committee have expressed similar beliefs, with many calling on the government to focus its efforts on intervening at schools that require it and leaving those that are functioning well alone.

Presenting last week (15 November), the Federation of Associations of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) noted that 80% of school governing bodies in the country are dysfunctional and require intervention.

However, it said that the functional and successful bodies should be allowed to continue as they are, without the interference of the state.

On Monday (21 November), the association added that the BELA Bill was full of shortcomings that have been missed by those not practised in dealing with the governance of schools.

This is especially the case in many of the seemingly minor and technical amendments that could have far-reaching consequences or simply do not do enough to address the needs of the country, it said.

One such aspect is how a school’s capacity is determined, it said.

“The actual implication is the number of learners in a classroom. The bigger picture is that there are still far too few schools in some areas of the country, especially schools that offer quality education. Parents and guardians obviously want to enrol their children in good schools, and these are not always the closest schools.”

The group said that clear guidelines on the determination of a school’s capacity are lacking in the current amendments.

Another shortfall in the amendments relates to conflicts between national and provincial regulations.

“Each provincial education department has a different interpretation of national legislation. Not only is this often clumsy, but in many cases, it goes against the spirit of the South African Schools’ Act and other national regulations,” the group said.

Proposed changes

Broadly, the BELA Bill proposes to amend the South African Schools Act (SASA) and the Employment of Educators Act (EEA) to tackle several issues that have gained prominence in South Africa.

This includes some definitions which are not clear, introducing ways to hold school governing bodies (SGBs) more accountable, and taking control over language policies from SGBs and giving it to the government.

Some of the key amendments that the bill aims to make include:

  • Making grade R the new compulsory school starting age, as opposed to grade 1, as is currently the case.
  • Forcing homeschooled learners to be registered for this type of schooling.
  • Criminalising parents who do not ensure their child or children are in school, with fines or jail time up to 12 months.
  • Holding school governing bodies more accountable for disclosures of financial interests – including those related to their spouses and family members.
  • Prohibiting educators from conducting business with the state or being a director of public or private companies conducting business with the state.
  • Abolishing corporal punishment and initiation/hazing practices.
  • Allowing schools to sell alcohol outside of school hours.
  • Giving government department heads power over language policies and the curriculums a school must adopt.

Previous submissions to the committee implored lawmakers to drop alcohol sales from the planned changes and pushed back hard against giving the government the power to determine language policies and admission requirements.

The bill is currently being processed by parliament and is at the stage of public consultation. More presentations are expected on Tuesday.

Read: Storm brewing over big language changes for schools in South Africa

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