Parliament agrees to comprehensive public consultation on education law in March

This morning [Tuesday], the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Education agreed to a comprehensive public consultation process on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill), proposed to be advertised from March 1, reports Philip Rosenthal of ChristianView Network

The comprehensive law will affect every public school and home schooling family in South Africa. The government has listened to our concerns on some points, but many of the big problems remain, he says.

“A small win for example is that the 2017 proposal to ban leases of school buildings without permission of the MEC Education has been relaxed to a ban on a lease of more than 1 year. That will help a lot of church plants that use school halls, but we would like it relaxed more to a limit of a 3 year lease.

“Another small win compared with 2017 is that if the Education Department doesn’t respond in time to a parents application to home school, then the right is by default.

“Bad news is that the proposed bill would still take away power from parents over language policy and admissions — allowing the Education Department to over-rule the governing body.

“There will likely be public consultation in every province. Please be ready to attend and speak up in your province. We will issue more detailed comment on the bill soon,” says Rosenthal.

Meanwhile, the ACDP reports it is calling for the home education sections of the bill to be removed and sent back to the DBE to be redrafted, as adequate research was not conducted into home education.

“Home education, or what is more commonly known as home schooling, has been growing in recent years and this has evidently led to the DBE proposing changes to the laws governing it. However, as lawmakers, we should never propose legislation without it having an adequate basis in research, says ACDP MP Marie Sukers in a Facebook post.

She says that under persistent questioning at a meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, admitted to her that the DBE does not have research into home education.

“The DBE prides itself on being a research and science-led department, but it has no current and credible research on which to base the proposed regulation of home education.

“In my oversight role, and as a public representative, I seriously cannot be asked to even consider legislation when it is being based on a single out-of-date research report that the DBE doesn’t even appear to be aware of, especially when one considers all the changes that have occurred in education in recent years. This is legislating blind.

“A further question is, how does the department conduct a Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) of the impact of the bill on home education if it doesn’t have research on home education?” says Sukers.

Since 2015 government departments have had to prepare a report on the socio-economic impact for all proposed laws, regulations or policies, and present this to Cabinet when seeking Cabinet approval for any change to a law. The purpose of this Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) process is to minimise unintended consequences from legislation — such as the BELA Bill.

“The DBE doesn’t appear to have followed the correct procedure when inviting public comment on the bill. Cabinet guidelines indicate that a final Socio-Economic Impact Assessment Report must be shared with the public when they are invited to comment on a bill. This wasn’t done with the BELA Bill.”

Sukers further pointed out that “a procedural error like this could lead to the BELA Bill being struck down by the courts.” “

She says: “As the ACDP, we do not want either Parliament or the DBE to waste taxpayers’ money defending the actions of officials who have not done their jobs properly. This was exactly what the ACDP’s former Member of Parliament, Cheryllyn Dudley, warned about in 2017 when she stated that the DBE and Parliament must follow all procedures relating to the Bill correctly and engage extensively and constructively with the public to avoid legal action.”

The controversial BELA Bill was published for public comment in 2017. More than 5 000 submissions were received from the public and of those over 1 000 came from home schoolers who are less than 1% of the schooling population. They argued that the bill would effectively regulate home schooling into extinction.

Concern over the bill was so great that in November 2017, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education called on the DBE to explain why the public was so concerned. At that meeting members of Parliament from across the political spectrum urged the Department to engage constructively with all stakeholders.

“The ACDP has closely monitored the progress on BELA Bill for the last five years, and have been listening to the home education community to determine if they have really been engaged with and consulted in a constructive way.

“However, in 2018 the Department of Basic Education described concerned home-schooling parents — who wrote to the Minister of Basic Education – as ‘spammers’. Statements like that don’t breed trust and confidence. I was not at all surprised when home schooling parents contacted me to express their concerns about the home education sections of the BELA Bill when it was tabled in Parliament in December last year [2021].

“As far as home schoolers are concerned, little has changed in five years. The department does not seem to be listening to the community on the ground,“ says Sukers.

“Home schooling leaders made a final attempt to bring these flaws to Cabinet’s attention prior to the tabling of the BELA Bill in Parliament but were ignored. This is not the first time that I have heard of the Office of the Presidency ignoring the public.

“Unfortunately, it is all too common that the State feels that the purpose of engagement is to ‘educate’ our citizens rather than listen to the public and take their views seriously and change policy according to what the government learns from these engagements.

“The minister made it clear that there were a number of delays in bringing the BELA Bill before the House, and that the bill is far from perfect. I don’t think the DBE has any idea how many home educators there are out there, but it is a small number, and the minister is clearly concerned that the engagement that Parliament will now have to conduct, to avoid legal challenges from home educators, will further delay a Bill that impacts over 12 million learners.

“The fundamental problem that is constantly missed by the DBE is that home education should not be regulated under the South African Schools Act. The department insists that home education is not to be called home schooling, but keeps trying, unsuccessfully as this bill shows, to shoe-horn it into the Schools Act.

“The minister has wide powers under the National Education Policy Act and should use those to split the home education sections from the Bill, and rather deal with them separately in a more appropriate regulatory framework.

“The ACDP has always supported the rights of families and parents to choose the best education for their children, and we fully support home education. I struggle to understand why the DBE would propose laws to regulate home education that are so obviously flawed unless there is an ideological opposition to home education on the part of government.

“When you consider all that has gone on since Covid, the lack of space in schools and tens of thousands of learners at home, surely a responsible government would encourage home education, unless this is part of the ongoing attack on the rights of families and parents that we have seen recently.

“I call on my fellow parliamentarians to send the home education portions of the BELA Bill back to the DBE so that proper and independent research is conducted to allow for stakeholders to be consulted, in a meaningful fashion, before we are asked to consider changes to the law.”

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