NEWS & ANALYSIS

The imminent death of public schooling

Jaco Deacon says Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill will see the reassertion of centralised state control over our schools

An ugly day when public schools become state schools again... 

1 November 2017

I

Thought that as a parent you had the right to make decisions about your child’s education? Not when the proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill becomes a reality. Dr Jaco Deacon, education law specialist and Deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS) says if ordinary South Africans fail to exercise their democratic duty now there are dark days ahead.

State control that goes directly against democracy – that is the primary characteristic of the proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill announced by the Minister of Basic Education on 13 October this year. This Bill is aimed at, amongst others, limiting certain functions of school governing bodies, including being able to make recommendations about certain appointments, admission and language policies as well as certain financial functions.

As part of South Africa’s new constitutional dispensation a deliberate move away from the model of state schools was made. In the instance of a state school model the State decides about and controls everything. Instead, the South African Schools’ Act allows for the creation of public schools; schools with full legal personality governed by school communities through democratically elected governing bodies. We have 23 719 public schools with some 285 000 members of governing bodies that form a system so important that is was described in a Constitutional Court judgment as a “beacon of grassroots democracy”.

According to the Constitution every South African has the right to basic education, which the State has to provide. In practical terms this means that the State has four duties:

1. to provide schools;

2. to fund education;

3. to monitor the quality of education; and

4.  to provide properly trained and qualified educators.

With the implementation of the Schools’ Act and the duties and responsibilities it affords to governing bodies, another key responsibility was added, namely to train governing bodies. In this regard provincial departments have failed dismally and very little has been done to provide sufficient training and support to governing bodies. Unfortunately the State did not obtain distinctions in any of the other four responsibilities either!

The proposed amendments take us back to a model where the State controls everything. It goes against every principle of public education and democracy in general in will not contribute in any way towards increasing the quality of education in the country. In fact, the opposite is true.

The proposed amendments are a direct violation of parents’ right to have a say in the education of their children. In addition, the amendments nullify the so-called partnership that should exist between the State, educators and parents. The Bill ignores a number of important judgements by the Constitutional Court that confirm the authority of governing bodies.

The well-known saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” emphasises the role of the community in the education of children and the fact that school communities should take ownership of this responsibility. The State now prefers to exchange the “village” for an official “somewhere” in an office. Someone who does not understand the needs nor the heartbeat of a community, someone with nothing to lose and no one to hold them accountable. Someone who can move school principals around like chess pieces and place schools in a checkmate position!

One of the stipulations sounds very noble – to increase imprisonment from six months to six years should parents neglect to send their children to school. Unfortunately I am not aware of even a single person who was sentenced to the current six months. Another stipulation is that all educators have to declare their financial interests and that their spouse or partner has to do the same – a gross violation of all non-educators’ right to privacy! 

I hope by this time you are sitting up and taking notice as this is not only an assault on schools but an assault on our societal order. The State wants to take a short-cut with difficult challenges in schools. Instead of doing the hard work of fixing what is wrong, the State now aims to force 100% of our children into the 20% of properly functioning schools. It is indeed an ugly day when public schools become state schools again.

Who is going to be the voice for our children? Schools and governing bodies will comment on the Bill, but the actual voting power lies with ordinary South Africans who should now voice their concern without hesitation.

FEDSAS has launched a campaign on social media with the hashtag #StopSchoolCapture. The public has until 10 November to comment and FEDSAS encourages all South Africans to comment. A copy of the Bill is available on the FEDSAS website at www.fedsas.org.za under the link “What is new?”

II

Why the uproar about school capture?

The proposed Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill has caused great consternation in the education sector. The proposed amendments are aimed at limiting certain functions of school governing bodies, including making recommendations about certain appointments, admission and language policies as well as certain financial functions. Dr Jaco Deacon, education law specialist and Deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS) sets out the real implications of this Bill.

Why the uproar? Surely drastic measures are to be expected if only 20% of the country’s 23 719 public schools function properly! But this is exactly where the problem starts – very few of the 46 stipulations in the proposed bill will actually address the real problems with the system. In fact, most of it will merely derail the small number of schools that delivers excellent performance.

The preamble to the Schools’ Act determines that “this country requires a new national system for schools which will redress past injustices in educational provision, provide an education of progressively high quality for all learners and in so doing lay a strong foundation for the development of all our people's talents and capabilities, advance the democratic transformation of society, combat racism and sexism and all other forms of unfair discrimination and intolerance, contribute to the eradication of poverty and the economic well-being of society, protect and advance our diverse cultures and languages, uphold the rights of all learners, parents and educators, and promote their acceptance of responsibility for the organisation, governance and funding of schools in partnership with the State”.

The proposed amendment bill draws a thick red line through this goal as well as the model of public schools where communities accept ownership for schools and parents have a direct say in their children’s education. The Bill forces a barely concealed model of state schools upon a democratic society where the State centrally wields power and government officials hold sway. The manner in which this Bill is steamrolled goes against the bona fide cooperation that should exist between State, learners, parents and educators.

White Paper 1 of 1995 was one of the frontrunners to the Schools’ Act. In this document it is determined that ownership of schools should be given back to school communities and that parents should have a direct say in the education of their children. Schools received legal personality controlled by governing bodies of which the majority membership should belong to parents.

With power comes responsibility and the Schools’ Act was written in such a manner that the State received responsibility to see to it that governing bodies are properly equipped for their important task. However, it is here that the wheels start to come off with provincial education departments not providing the necessary training or support to governing bodies.

It is a fact that many schools have poor governing bodies, but the lack of training and support from the State has made this a very handy argument for official and politicians to limit the authority of all governing bodies (read: also parents).

It is also a fact that competent governing bodies and well-functioning schools are a thorn in the side of officials and politicians. Governing bodies that know their rights and act in the best interests of the school do not allow unlawful interference and will oppose any disregard of schools’ interests.

Giving complete authority over the appointment of school principals and other senior staff to officials is setting the wolf to keep the sheep! Parents know what the needs of the school and school community are and many governing bodies follow comprehensive appointment procedures to recommend the right leaders. If an official “somewhere in an office” is going to decide on appointments we are going to see more unrest and instability in schools. Court cases will increase, not decrease. Provincial departments will have to do a lot more to ensure that each school is a good school and then language and admission policies will also no longer be an issue.

We often hear that education is an issue that relates to the entire society – this is true! Now is the time for society to make its voice heard. We have until 10 November to comment on this Bill. Ordinary people, citizens of the country, fathers and mothers and grandparents together with civil society are encouraged to participate.

Also remember the lessons learned from the E-toll system – it is very difficult to fight a decision when you’ve missed the opportunity to provide input beforehand. Once the electronic gates have gone up they are removed with great difficulty and at great cost.

So, why the uproar? We have public schools, not state schools and it should remain as such. Children stand to lose the most when parents no longer have a say in education. Let your vote count.

FEDSAS has launched a campaign on social media with the hashtag #StopSchoolCapture. The public has until 10 November to comment and FEDSAS encourages all South Africans to comment. A copy of the Bill is available on the FEDSAS website at www.fedsas.org.za under the link “What is new?”

* Dr Jaco Deacon is the Deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, the author of School Governance: Common issues and how to deal with them and the editor of the Juta Education Law and Policy Handbook.