The portfolio committee on basic education has summarised the feedback processed so far in relation to proposed changes to South Africa’s school laws.
In a presentation this week (6 December), the committee summarised the main points of approval and objection related to the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA), which aims to make a host of changes to schools in South Africa.
Broadly, the laws propose big changes to the compulsory starting age for children in South Africa while clarifying and formalising aspects of home education and financial administration of schools in the country.
The bill also contains highly controversial proposals, such as giving the government the final say over language policies at schools, as well as allowing schools to sell alcohol at after-hours, non-school related activities.
According to the portfolio committee, of the 18,000 written submissions made on the bill, only 7,700 have been processed so far, with the reading and verification of submissions still ongoing.
Tellingly, from a sample of 500 submissions made, the overwhelming majority – 76% – were against the bill. The committee noted, however, that this is a “moving target” and a clearer picture will emerge once all the submissions have been processed.
Meanwhile, the committee held public hearings between 8 and 29 November, where 31 presentations from stakeholders in the education sector made their views known.
Coverage of these presentations revealed a mixed bag of responses, with most groups and institutions expressing disapproval of the changes overall – though support was shown for some specifics.
According to the committee, from the feedback garnered so far, the proposed laws can be split into three categories: supported, objected and partially accepted.
The main views on the laws are summarised below:
- Compulsory Grade-R: Comments generally supported the change in law to make Grade R compulsory in South Africa, with school attendance starting at age 6. However, concerns were raised about schools’ capacity – in terms of infrastructure and educators – to admit these learners, noting backlogs already impeding the plan.
- Abolishing corporal punishment: Most views supported positive discipline instead of corporal punishment.
- Merging schools: Comments supported merging schools where conditions are met for such to take place – but public participation must be part of the process and parents and learners must be consulted.
- Blocking educators from doing business with the state: This change is generally supported.
- Giving heads of department final say on admissions: Comments objected to giving heads of department the final say in learner admissions, saying it is in conflict with the South African Schools Act and the spirit of the Constitution.
- Giving heads of department control over critical decisions: Stakeholders believe the government is trying to take control and organisational powers away from school governing bodies – although they admit there are instances where schools need government intervention.
- Giving heads of department control over language policy: This was overwhelmingly rejected, with comments saying this should remain within control of the school governing body.
- Alcohol sales at schools: Stakeholders rejected having alcohol sales in a child-friendly environment, and the laws cannot guarantee that the ills associated with alcohol use – violence, conflict and drunk driving – would be managed effectively.
- Disclosure of financial interests: Having School Governing Bodies and their families disclose their financial interests is an unreasonable invasion of privacy, commentators said.
- Home education changes: Parents rejected the proposal to register and formalise home education, preferring to run independently. The main argument against the laws is that provincial departments lack the capacity to administrate the process. More research needs to be done.
- Extended jail time for parents whose children are not in school: Stakeholders argued that sending parents to jail would exacerbate, rather than solve the problem.
- Changes for independent schools: Independent schools welcome regulation but felt that quarterly reporting would be too much.
- Financial records for public schools: There is a need to address the funding model of public schools, but the view is that the department should rather focus on schools that are struggling instead of burdening all 24,000 schools in the country with more admin.
- Undocumented learners: Stakeholders said that learners should not be discriminated against because they lack documentation, but the solution to the problem lies outside the education department.
Along with the specific changes, feedback from stakeholders showed that more needs to be done with the laws and policy proposals, including redrafting the South African School Act to become a true Education Act, inserting online learning into the bill, and including rural education in the amendments.
“A vast majority of the submissions were against the proposed bill in its entirety,” the committee said. “Most of the submitters have indicated that the proposed amendments have taken away the rights of parents to choose the manner in which their children should be educated.”
The committee noted that there were also comments that highlighted a distinct lack of trust in the government.
Public participation in the bill will continue in 2023, with provincial hearings scheduled through to April 2023.