The portfolio committee on basic education this week began hearing oral submissions on planned changes to school regulations in South Africa.
The Basic Education Laws (Bela) Amendment Bill is currently being considered by Parliament and is currently at the public consultation stage.
Several stakeholders have already submitted written comments, but the next few weeks have been set
aside for pleadings.
The proposed changes are to make class R the starting class of compulsory education for all children, as opposed to class 1; criminalize parents who fail to ensure their children are in school, with fines or prison terms of up to 12 months, and force home-schooled students to enroll in this type of education.
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Parents and students will also be required to provide specified documents when applying; school governing bodies will be held more accountable for disclosures of financial interests – including those related to their spouses and family members; teachers will be prohibited from doing business with the state or being directors of public or private companies doing business with the state; and corporal punishment and initiation/hazing practices will be abolished.
Equal Education researcher Jan Borman said their main concern, and one of the main areas they have presented to parliament, is the sale of alcohol in schools.
She said the Ministry of Basic Education argued that alcohol sales help fundraising and are regulated.
Borman said that despite its sale only during school activities and its regulation, they are concerned that it could lead to increased access to alcohol in schools.
Borman said Equal Education welcomes the call to make Class R the new compulsory starting grade.
“The first four to six years of learning are critical and have such a big impact on the rest of a student’s school life,” she said.
Borman explained that it was not about starting Grade 1 at R level, but said it was about making sure the learning process starts at an early age.
Obviously, this will require a lot more administration from the Ministry of Basic Education, and that worries us, but we welcome this amendment
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Borman also welcomed the amendment to abolish corporal punishment.
“We believe it needs to go further to ensure that it not only includes physical harm and threats of physical harm, but also inappropriate mental and oral punishment. We also believe that significant training and resources must be given to schools to build appropriate and alternative forms of discipline.
Regarding the proposal to hold school governing bodies more accountable for disclosures of financial interests, Borman said Corruption Watch recently released reports that examine the type of corruption that occurs at the level of school governing bodies.
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She said there were a lot of concerns that the position of power is being used by some school board members to basically give contracts to friends for personal enrichment, which has a negative impact on the school environment and could be a waste of funds.
Advocating for homeschooling, Catherine Troveri of the Hands-on Education Center in Pietermaritzburg, said the ever-changing nature of education in the modern age with the introduction of digital learning and ever-changing academic needs evolving students have achieved critical requirements for an efficient infrastructure to meet the growing needs of academics.
Families should be empowered to make this decision on behalf of their children and to manage it appropriately and successfully. She said the current rigid and draconian infrastructure and approach to education in South Africa needs to be addressed by all stakeholders.
“The Department of Education should be encouraged to align independent program providers with enrolled students so that there is a positive symbiosis in the management and success of students who choose alternative pathways of education and ultimate student achievement,” said Troveri.
Dot Nixon of the Modern Minds Study and Encouragement Center in Ashburton said that despite their institution catering mainly to children with reduced mobility, she believes that not all children do well with the curriculum in public and private schools.
Nixon said they were members of the Pestalozzi Trust, a civil rights organization for home educators that ensures they follow all applicable laws and regulations.
“We are a Christian institution and we are not registered with the government as we don’t fully agree with some of the materials they distribute, especially to young children.