LESSONS IN LAW
‘Crumbling’ education landscape prompts ‘Basic Education Rights Handbook’ update
The Basic Education Rights Handbook – written in plain English so that it is accessible to learners, their parents, teaching staff and members of school governing bodies – has recently been updated and reprinted.
The positive response to the first Handbook, published in 2017, and significant changes in the education landscape in South Africa since then, prompted this update.
Faranaaz Veriava, head of the Education Rights Programme at SECTION27 and managing editor of the Handbook, said that apart from the book’s usefulness to the users it was aimed at, it had become an authoritative text used in various law and education faculties.
“Obviously, we always wanted the book to be used far and wide, and it has been, and that’s why it was necessary to update it. We want every member of the education community to understand their roles within the legal framework, know their rights and understand their obligations. We see the book as assisting in making the education system as functional as possible,” Veriava said.
Since the first edition of the Handbook, several things have changed in basic education in South Africa, and few of them have been positive.
“The education landscape, if anything, has worsened,” Veriava said. “This is due to the government spending less on health and basic education services. We are witnessing human resources deficits in these sectors and infrastructure is – literally – crumbling.
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“And then there was Covid. We know that learners were hungry while at home and missed huge amounts of teaching and learning, particularly learners in poorer schools that were subject to rotational learning to avoid overcrowding under the pandemic.”
Unicef reported in 2021 that some learners in South Africa were 75% to a full school year behind, and that about half a million had dropped out of school altogether. According to the South African government’s website, the percentage of individuals over the age of 20 years who could be regarded as functionally illiterate was 12.1% in 2019.
One of the definitions of literacy is someone who can read and write, with understanding, a short, simple statement about their everyday life.
Veriava said: “The learning losses have been unquantifiable, dropouts have been significant, and the money needed for Covid was diverted away from school infrastructure.”
Most predictions for education outcomes in South Africa in the next few years are dire, but there have been some triumphs in the past five years since the Handbook was published, mostly as a result of the work of non-governmental organisations such as SECTION27, the Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education.
Veriava said: “There have definitely been significant victories in campaigns and (legal) cases. The school nutrition case is an example. Policy developments that have been campaigned for are now Department of Basic Education policy, for example the corporal punishment policy.”
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In July 2020, Acting Deputy Judge President Sulet Potterill ruled that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and eight education MECs had neglected their duties by failing to roll out the schools’ nutrition programme to all qualifying learners, whether those learners were back at school or not.
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The Handbook is a collaboration between SECTION27, the Equal Education Law Centre, Equal Education, the Centre for Child Law, the Legal Resources Centre and the International Commission of Jurists.
The fight continues
Things were going badly for Basic Education in South Africa before Covid. Asked where organisations still found the energy for the good fight for education, Veriava said: “The country is heart-breaking and we are all fatigued by Covid, corruption, load shedding, crime, you name it. But not doing anything is worse.
“Making a difference for some child somewhere is why we carry on. That the Handbook can, for example, empower a single mother to get an exemption from school fees for her child if she is eligible and thereby enable her child to attend a better school, is why we value the Handbook enough to update it.”
Print and digital copies of the book are available for anyone who needs to understand their rights in education in South Africa. DM/MC
Disclosure: The author, Karin Schimke was involved in the production of the Handbook. Maverick Citizen Managing Editor Anso Thom was a co-editor for the first edition of the Handbook while at SECTION27.