by Muhammad Khalid Sayed
At the beginning of this year, the beginning of this year, the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill) was introduced in our national parliament, bringing it a step closer to being signed into law, and after an eight-year journey of widespread consultations between the Department of Basic Education, communities and various education stakeholders.
Approximately 5000 comments on the bill were received in the last five years.
A substantial amount of comments were received from parents who, in the main, raised concerns around the amendments to home education. Yet, submissions were also made by an array of civil society organisations.
In total, the BELA Bill proposes 27 amendments to the South African Schools Act, some of which one personally opposes but others which one welcomes.
For example, there is the clause which now seeks to provide for or create conditions under which alcohol may be possessed, consumed or sold on school premises or during school activities.
Following the recent Enyobeni tragedy, our national government should be well aware of the harmful effects of alcohol in society, on youth in general and learners, in particular.
Our schools should remain alcohol-free zones, and this sentiment has been raised by myself in the presence of the national minister.
There should be little doubt that it will continue to be raised until this specific amendment is discarded.
On the other hand, the BELA Bill makes a number of other progressive proposals, such as permitting the admission of learners to grade R at the age of four and who will be turning five by 30 June in the year of admission. It further makes six years the compulsory school-going age.
There is also a clause in the bill which seeks to mitigate the high learner dropout rate by placing an obligation on educators, principals and School Governing Bodies (SGBs), as well as parents in loco, to take responsibility and accountability for learners who are within their school community by ascertaining the whereabouts of a learner who is absent for a period of more than three days without a valid reason.
Our education system is arguably one of the most untransformed, characterised by overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated infrastructure in most schools. It is an education system that continues to perpetuate widespread inequalities.
In this context and in order to maintain the status quo, a number of former model C schools have used admission and language policies for discriminatory purposes, thereby purposefully excluding poor and predominantly African, Coloured and Indian learners from being admitted to these schools.
Annually in the Western Cape, the ANC deals with complaints of thousands of learners across the board, who apply correctly and timeously, yet, they are rejected without being provided with reasons.
A number of SGBs at former model C schools currently conduct themselves as if they have unlimited powers, and no one is holding them to account.
This is a situation also highlighted by organisations such as Equal Education, Equal Education Law Centre, Section27, and other NGOs in their written submissions on BELA Bill.
These organisations believe that the proposed changes provide greater opportunity to identify and mitigate discriminatory practices at schools while emphasising the role played by SGBs in these processes. This is in line with calls the ANC has been making repeatedly since 2019, both in legislature and in the public domain, for a transformed and uniform admissions policy.
At the same time, Section27 and the other organisations have also welcomed the amendments on admissions and go on to point out the role the provincial head of the education department (HOD) plays in having the authority to admit a learner to a public school.
The amendments, however, need to be crafted in a way that doesn’t allow HODs to impose big intakes of learners in already overcrowded public schools, particularly in poor and working-class communities.
If not approached with the necessary nuance, inequalities in our education system could be entrenched. This concern has been raised by the NGO Parents for Equal Education SA.
The HOD now also has the power to approve and provide oversight on the decisions of SGBs with respect to language policies.
Yet despite these positive reforms, there still remains the potential for schools to continue using language policies that lend themselves to racism by turning learners away on the basis of language.
In contrast to these, civil society organisations, and not surprisingly, apartheid apologists, such as Solidarity and AfriForum, aided by their parliamentary bedfellows, the DA and FF+, are rejecting the BELA Bill in its entirety precisely because the bill seeks to do away with discriminatory admission and language policies.
One can only but welcome some of the progressive recommendations made by some civil society organisations on the BELA Bill and hope that this would be the first step in bringing about equal but quality education for all our learners.
* Sayed is the ANC spokesperson for Education in the Western Cape legislature.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.