New laws for schools in South Africa an ‘overreach by the state’: governing bodies

 ·17 Feb 2024

As the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill moves closer to being signed into law, supporters hope that the new legislation will close many ‘loopholes’ in the education system.

However, many school governing bodies (SGBs) continue to oppose the coming changes and worry that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

This amended piece of legislation introduces a few changes to the South African Schools Act (SASA) of 1996 and the Employment of Educators Act (EEA) of 1998 (Act No. 76 of 1898).

Some examples of amendments to the BELA Bill which will affect SGBs include:

  • Education heads of department (HoDs) now have the final say after consulting school governing bodies (SGBs) as to which pupils to admit to public schools as well as the school’s language policy;
  • Further regulates the withdrawal of the functions of governing bodies;
  • The HoD may (on reasonable grounds) dissolve a governing body that “has ceased to perform its functions”;
  • The governing body of a public school must submit quarterly reports on all income and expenditure;
  • Compel SGB members to declare annually their financial interests as well as those of their immediate families.

CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), Dr. Jaco Deacon said that the bill “will discourage school communities from taking ownership of public schools [which] will take us back to a state school model where the state will have ultimate control over everything.”

He said South Africa “stepped away from that model in 1994.”

While numerous provisions in the bill have been welcomed, including expanding the definition of corporal punishment to protect children and criminalising some parental conduct – many, including those to do with SGBs, have been met with fierce resistance.

Deacon said there is “an overreach by the state with specific reference to the proposed amendments on the admissions and language policies.”

He said that SGBs are best positioned to deal with these specific policies, with “no need for the HOD to accept or approve [the policies].”

Another point of contention for Fedsas is a possible administration burden. Deacon said that schools having to submit quarterly financial statements on top of their annual audited financial statements, without any additional staff, is an unnecessary strain.

Additionally, the federation is concerned about the central procurement of learning and teaching material.

“Until we have resolved our procurement issues, dealt with corruption and have trust in the system, central procurement will only create a new place where the state will be looted at the expense of learners.”

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga sought to ease concerns around the bill this week by portraying the government’s support of SGBs at the launch of elections for school governing bodies in Pretoria on Monday.

In her address, she acknowledged the positive impact “functional SGBs” have on schools.

“There is a correlation between engaged SGBs and school success, and this is undeniable because schools with great SGBs who participate in the work of the schools have an average of 20% higher performance compared to those schools where there is lower engagement with parents,” said Motshekga.

Deacon responded to this, saying that “the Minister is correct that schools perform much better if there is a functioning SGB [and an] involved community that works in tandem with school management and the educators [as] good governance and management is a prerequisite for a successful school.”  

However, he said the BELA Bill will not encourage this – “quite the opposite; it will harm the top-performing schools,” he said.

Supporters of the bill have argued that the bill removes a “loophole” that allowed SGBs to exclude learners from admission based on race – but again, Deacon contested this position.

“If there is “blatant unfair discrimination, the SA Schools Act already allows for a remedy where SGB functions can be withdrawn where there is an appeal process.” he said.

Generally, opponents of the bill have posited that the legislation “disempowers schools, parents, and communities”, fails to address systemic challenges (like overcrowding, poor literacy, dropouts and a lack of resources), instead opting to centralise power within government.

The department said this is a “common misconception” and that the bill “aspires to harmonise the powers of the SGB with the directives of the relevant provincial Head of Department”.

The BELA Bill is currently sitting in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and is likely to face further legal and political opposition.

Read: New laws for schools in South Africa – the clock is ticking

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