Have your say in the big changes for South African schools as public hearings kick off in provinces

Published Feb 27, 2023


Concerned Limpopo residents, parents and groups came out in their numbers to voice their concerns over the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill as Parliament’s portfolio committee began its provincial public consultations process this weekend.

The BELA Bill aims to make a host of changes to schools in South Africa, including controversial proposals such as giving the government the final say over language policies at schools and allowing schools to sell alcohol at after-hours and non-school related activities.

The laws propose big changes, and with that, faced major backlash during consultations with stakeholders last year, when various organisations, unions, political parties and industry groups made presentations to the portfolio committee.

In summary, the Bela Bill proposes a new compulsory starting age for children in South Africa while clarifying and formalising aspects of home education and the financial administration of schools in the country.

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 home-schooled 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 curriculum a school must adopt.

In Polokwane this weekend, the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education was urged by residents to ensure that the language determination policy is centralised in the Office of the provincial Head of the Department of Education (HOD) to remedy the current problem of the exclusion of learners, a problem they said is a creation of this policy.

Those in support of the Bill highlighted that schools in the urban areas in Limpopo continue to utilise the language determination policy as a barrier, a tendency which reverses the gains of transformation, the Committee said.

The participants argued that the bill, in its current form, would remove the undue power to exclude certain learners. Those who opposed the bill argued that the centralisation of power in the Office of the HOD would, among other things, delay School Governing Bodies (SGBs) from taking decisions within reasonable times at schools.

Meanwhile, those in support of the bill put conditions for their support, also proposing clauses that must be removed from the bill to make it practical.

Labour unions emphasised that the bill, in its current form, emphasised the protection of learners and ignored the protection of teachers. They argued that emphasis should be made for the protection of both.

Also, there was a strong suggestion that, in relation to the investigations of learner absenteeism, the bill must also include a clause that requires parents and not teachers to investigate cases of absenteeism.

There was an outcry that the bill is silent on learners with disabilities and that clauses on how the system will ensure the provision of quality and inclusive education system should be inserted in the bill.

Those against the bill expressed their fears regarding the over-regulation of home schooling. The participants told the committee that there is limited research and engagement with stakeholders to legitimise the regulations within the bill. Furthermore, the participants were critical about the heaviness of the content of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum, and they argued that CAPS is unresponsive to the needs of learners.

Even though there were disagreements, there was a general consensus in the end that the requirement the bill imposes on the SGBs to declare financial interests was unfair if adopted in its current form. An argument was made that the extension of declaration of financial interests to include family members and relatives will discourage parents from availing themselves for participation in the SGBs, and that will weaken the pillar of governance at schools.

Similar to all the hearings in Limpopo, residents of Polokwane vehemently rejected the proposal to sell alcohol on school premises, arguing that there is no moral ground to justify the decision and that the only alcohol that must be accepted within schools is ethanol for experiments during science lessons.

Following a number of submissions by concerned groups last year, certain aspects of the proposed laws have generally been broadly supported, including the compulsory grade-R, abolishing corporal punishment and merging schools where the appropriate conditions were met.

However, many aspects of the laws have been outright rejected. This includes giving heads of department control over admissions and critical decisions for the school, as well as giving the government control over schools’ language policies.

In a statement issued on Monday, the committee said it appreciated the huge turnout at all three hearings it conducted in Limpopo and the quality of inputs it received from the people.

“In all three sessions, the turnout was overwhelming, which indicated the deep commitment of the people for the existence of quality education system for our children. The committee will take into consideration inputs made and will deliberate on them and factor them into the Bill,” said Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, the chairperson of the committee.

Following the completion of the Limpopo leg of public hearings, the committee wil,l over the next weekend, from 3-5 March, hold hearings in the Free State as part of the nationwide public participation programme. The committee called on the people of the Free State to use the service of Public Education Office officers of Parliament to ensure meaningful awareness and proper understanding about Bela Bill.