Widespread rejection of BELA Bill by parents, homeschoolers

ACDP MP Marie Sukers

By Marie Sukers, MP

On Tuesday, the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education heard that 78% of those making oral submissions during the public hearings on the BELA Bill in the Western Cape had rejected the bill. This follows rejections of the Bill in both KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The BELA Bill is being rejected by concerned parents and home schoolers who worry about the implications of the Minister of Basic Education seeking power to make regulations, and on the other hand the powers of school governing bodies being stripped away.

Submissions by homeschoolers dominated both the Wolseley and Gugulethu hearings. The key concern raised at the hearings is that BELA Bill requires homeschoolers to ask an official in an education department to grant permission to them to homeschool. Parents sending their children to an independent school, however, don’t have to ask the state for permission to do that. Not only are homeschoolers opposed to asking for permission, on principle, but they also raised practical concerns during the hearings. It was claimed that in many cases home schoolers wait for over a year to get a response on their application, and then some of them face irrational refusals. This is a clear situation in which the state wants to make decisions for parents.

Several homeschoolers say that they have no objection to notifying the education department that they are homeschooling, but they refuse to ask for permission to exercise a natural duty and right. To add insult to injury, the Minster of Basic Education has admitted to the portfolio committee that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has no research on homeschooling. I cannot see how, as responsible parliamentarians, we can support regulations without adequate research. It is clear from the many submissions received that the DBE has not engaged sufficiently with home schoolers.

The ACDP is deeply concerned about the clauses in the BELA Bill that allow the minister to make regulations concerning learner pregnancy. The memorandum to the Bill explains that Clause 41 “extend[s] the powers of the minister to make regulations on the management of learner pregnancy” as well as providing that the minister can make regulations that “may provide that any person who contravenes a provision of the regulation, or fails to comply therewith, is guilty of an offence”. If you read this clause along with the DBE’s “Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools”, then regulations could be written that will allow a teacher or school to refer a learner as young as 12-year-old for an abortion without any parental consent or knowledge. I understand that the public have varying views about the morality of abortion, but very, very few are willing to see their children subjected to medical procedures without their knowledge or consent. It is equally alarming that the Minister could criminalise those who refuse to make these referrals. If this is not the intent behind the Bill then the DBE will not be opposed to BELA Bill being amended to make the referral of learners for any medical treatment, without parental consent, illegal.

School governing body associations have objected to some of their powers being transferred to the DBE. If the BELA Bill passes into law, over 20 000 public schools will have to submit their language and admission policies to provincial education departments for approval. Schools fear that they will lose the ability to set the number of learners per class, and to decide on the language of instruction in their schools.

Overall, the fundamental flaw in the BELA Bill is that the State wants to take power away from parents and communities, and this is the main reason why a broad cross-section of society is opposed to the Bill. The other big reason is that the BELA Bill is focussed primarily on administration.

James Ndlebe, a chief director at the DBE, who addressed the public at Pacaltsdorp (George Local Municipality) explained that the BELA Bill only “focuses on issues of administration and management of schools”, and that the public will not find anything about curriculum, infrastructure, extra-mural activities, or even inclusive education in the bill. While I appreciate the DBE’s honesty in explaining the true nature of the BELA Bill, making life easier for officials, and giving them job security is not the primary need of the education sector at the moment. We don’t need an administrator-focussed Bill, but a child-centric one that puts the best interests and needs of the learners first. The BELA Bill does not do this, and this is why the public are rejecting it. The public are sick of having the needs of officials being placed above that of children.

While there has been some support for the bill, a significant number of those who made submissions supported the clauses giving the MEC the final say on the language and admission policy — which they believe schools use to unfairly discriminate against previously disadvantaged learners. I can say that I have experienced that myself. As a coloured mother, in the Western Cape, and one who is proud of our family’s heritage of speaking Afrikaans, my children had to “verengels” to get into very good schools. But the solution to this is to democratise school governing bodies not to destroy them. The state is not looking for solutions acceptable to all, but rather trying to divide communities with the BELA Bill. I have great faith in South Africans, and I do not believe they will allow cover to be provided for covert racism, but they do not want to give excessive power to the state. As the ACDP we will work to find a third way that brings South Africans together in the best interest of all our country’s children.

The ACDP encourages the public to familiarise themselves with the BELA Bill, and to reach out to their political parties, across the spectrum, to share their views on the bill. The BELA Bill is fundamentally flawed, and we need to go back to the drawing board, we can’t just make a few cosmetic changes. Resistance to the BELA Bill is growing as the public becomes more familiar with it.

The public participation period in the National Assembly is now closed and the committee will begin with its deliberations in August.

My office regularly gets calls from those who missed the opportunity to comment during the public hearings. There will be another round of public engagement when the bill is referred to the National Council of Provinces. The public will then be afforded another opportunity to voice their objection to the bill.

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