Big storm brewing over home schools and language policies in South Africa

The Department of Basic Education has wrapped up public consultations on its new proposed laws for schools in South Africa in eight provinces, with the Northern Cape the latest region to weigh in on the controversial changes.

As has been the pattern across all consultations with the public, views on the bill are divided with citizens supportive of some proposed changes and against others.

Broadly, 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.

So far, there has been a wide rejection of some of the more outlandish proposals, like allowing schools to sell alcohol during non-school activities. Conversely, it is widely accepted that some changes have to be made, particularly around admissions and how school governing bodies operate.

Two key issues that are emerging as a lightning rod of controversy, however, is giving government department heads the power to change language policies and admission rules, and the government’s moves to clamp down on home schools.

Critics of the bill have characterised these aspects as the government encroaching on the rights of parents to make decisions on their children’s education while also centralising power in government and stunting school governing bodies.

This was shown in contestation to the specific clauses of the bill that deal with language and admission policies.

Through the BELA bill, the government plans to give itself more power around language policies at schools in South Africa – including the main language of instruction.

The additional powers grant the final authority for admission and language policies to provincial heads of department. Currently, school governing bodies have this authority.

It also mandates provincial heads of department to consider the needs of the broader community in considering language policies, and authorises the heads of department to order mergers of schools.

“Those in support of the bill asserted that the bill is long overdue to address the principles of equality, access, redress and transparency because there was a gap in the current legislation. In line with this, according to supporters of the bill, the bill will resolve the arbitrary exclusion of learners through these policies,” parliament said.

Proponents also argued that the bill compels the Head of the Department of Basic Education to make rational decisions in making language and admission policies.

However, those against the bill were of the view that the centralisation of power is bound to create problems within the system and that School Governing Bodies remain the ideal structures to make decisions on language and admission policies.

The proposed changes to the language policies have been heavily criticised, with the Democratic Alliance noting previously 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.

Home school views

Parents have also generally pushed back against the government’s proposals around homeschooling – but the proposed changes have also found some support.

Under the new laws, home schools would have to register and be regulated.

“Those in support of the bill suggested that the regulation of home-schooling is necessary to ensure adherence to specific standards.

“Also, participants highlighted that the fear around home-schooling was misplaced because, according to them, the clause did not do away with home-schooling but advocated for the registration because the government has a responsibility to know if children have access to quality education,” parliament said.

However, those who rejected the bill raised concerns that the bill will force the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) assessment standards on home-schooling, something that ends the flexibility of the system.

Parents have argued that imposing an application process for homeschooling takes away the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

They argued that the bill does not take into consideration the unique needs of individual learners and that it seeks to impose CAPS on the people undermining their choice of different curriculums.

“Parents within the home-schooling system urged the department to go back to the drawing board, to consult extensively in the home-schooling environment and home-school organisation. They also called for international benchmarking against home-schooling systems abroad to ensure the delivery of an appropriate legislation,” parliament noted.

Back to the drawing board

Having received feedback from the public in eight provinces, it has become apparent that South Africans are massively divided over the proposed laws.

While there have been views on both sides for the most controversial changes, there has been a unanimous rejection of others.

This means that the laws will simply not be able to be passed in their current format and will have to go back to the drawing board on many aspects.

This echoes feedback from industry stakeholders and other organisations ahead of the public consultations, where the views were split into being accepted, rejected or finding partial support.

In these presentations, language policies and home schooling again emerged as the biggest points of controversy.

Source: BusinessTech