Defend Truth


Amendments to basic education law have some welcome elements, but there are serious flaws


Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

Every year, Gauteng and the Western Cape are expected to find school placements for late arrivals from neighbouring provinces and countries. A proposed amendment in the Basic Education Law Bill may authorise placements with minimal consultation and devastating consequences.

Apartheid education policies deliberately under-resourced schools in African, coloured and Indian communities. White schools were allocated almost five times more funding than schools for other races – establishing a disparity in education that we are still trying to rectify. It was therefore important, post-apartheid, to ensure that education policy was geared towards socioeconomic transformation.

In 1996, the South African Schools Act gave parents, teachers and high school students the right to form school governing bodies (SGBs). SGBs were introduced in order to increase participatory democracy within communities, ensuring that the people of South Africa were able to have a voice in determining their basic right to education.

As with all policy, the adoption of SGBs has had consequences – both positive and negative.

One major positive outcome has been the involvement and empowerment of parents, learners and communities in education. In resource-rich communities, the additional governance capacity has led to high performing schools and simultaneously reduced the burden on the state, theoretically providing additional capacity that allows education departments to focus on historically disadvantaged communities.

In some cases, the SGB model has had negative consequences. In resource-poor communities, through no fault of their own, elected members of the community often lack the requisite skills to govern a school effectively. These schools are sometimes poorly run. The power to make recommendations regarding educator and leadership appointments has presented challenges, too.

Given the sheer volume of appointments made annually, it is very difficult for education departments to rigorously monitor the process SGBs follow, and to interrogate the candidates put forward for the roles. We have a system where people deprived of an education are often responsible for the appointment of educators – the net result being a huge variation in quality.

In extreme cases, governing bodies have been guilty of nepotism and corruption – selling teaching and leadership posts to educators in collaboration with unions. For the past three decades capacity constraints and corruption have consistently undermined school management and the quality of education in resource-poor schools.

Conversely, Section 21 and former “Model C” schools have benefited from the SGB model in a manner that has continued to segregate our society and exacerbate the divide in access to quality education. With the power to define key policies such as fees, admissions and languages, former model C schools have in effect been able to control their intake, and ensure they continue to grant access to families of privilege – often at the exclusion of those who have been historically disadvantaged.

In October 2017, a draft Basic Education Law Amendment Bill was published for public comment. This bill proposes nearly 40 amendments to the South African Schools Act as well as a handful of changes to the Employment of Educators Act of 1998. This bill represents a unique opportunity to address some of the challenges we face with our school governance model. 

Overarchingly, the bill seeks to enhance the powers of regulation and oversight granted to the minister, members of the executive council and heads of departments (HODs) with regard to SGBs. This is a welcome change – a move towards increased oversight and accountability to mitigate the frequent incidences of nepotism, corruption, discrimination, underperformance, and the shortage of skills.

Increased reporting and transparency, as well as the power to dissolve underperforming or corrupt SGBs are strong proposed accountability mechanisms.

Specifically, the bill proposes that the HOD has greater authority in relation to the admission of learners to public schools, greater oversight of admission and language policies, and the power to direct a public school to adopt more than one language of instruction (provided the HOD then supplies the necessary resources to enable adequate tuition).

Everyone in education should be working to ensure access for all, and our society demands equitable approaches that prioritise access and learning for disadvantaged groups.

But there are issues with the enhanced powers being proposed. Granting HODs greater authority in relation to the admission of learners in public schools may not only currently be deemed unconstitutional, but appears to be a direct response to the annual challenge of insufficient school spaces – where every year, Gauteng and the Western Cape are inundated with late arrivals from neighbouring provinces and countries and expected to find school placements for them.

This amendment may allow HODs to authorise placements of learners in schools with minimal consultation and devastating consequences.

In my view, the bill takes a fairly binary approach to solving the governance challenges education faces – either power resides with the parents, or the department. Simply transferring the role of governance from SGBs to HODs presents a substantial challenge – it places additional responsibility on an already overwhelmed and under-resourced system. This is likely to result in further bureaucracy and bottlenecks.

I’d like to propose that we consider a third way – increasing capacity and distributing power through innovative partnerships between the state, the public, civil society and the private sector – with a focus on historically disadvantaged and oppressed communities.

There are already examples of this in our schools. Both Gauteng and the Western Cape have trialled “twinning” schools – pairing schools of privilege with under-resourced schools and sharing governance, leadership and facilities for a fixed period in order to set the new school up for success.

One of the best examples of this is the twinning of Westerford and Claremont High School – ranked 9th in the Western Cape for NSC results in 2020. Another example of increased governance capacity is the Western Cape’s Collaboration Schools – there have been challenges in the pilot phase, but these schools are showing signs of promise in terms of outcomes and have the potential to add substantial capacity to the system when the required accountability and oversight mechanisms are in place.

The challenge the system faces with overcrowding presents another opportunity to think differently about provision and partnerships. Covid has accelerated our ability to deliver content remotely.

Rather than providing HODs with the authority to make placements as/when they need to, the Department of Basic Education and national government should strongly consider policies that allow for greater flexibility in the delivery of education – online and blended – and look to develop the infrastructure required to support this. Blended learning in particular has the potential to be delivered at a fraction of the cost of traditional “brick and mortar” schooling – the bill in its current form makes very little provision for this kind of innovation.

Education is a basic right for all, and the state therefore holds the responsibility to ensure every citizen has access. But with rights come responsibilities, and a quality education for all is surely therefore the responsibility of all.

I urge those of us in civil society and the private sector to engage with the bill and to offer alternative solutions and support in the coming round of public hearings. Those working for the state, please hear our contributions, and be open to considering alternatives.

This bill offers a unique opportunity to collectively right the wrongs of the past and to begin delivering on South Africa’s mandate to ensure that “all our people will have access to lifelong learning, education and training opportunities which will, in turn, contribute towards improving the quality of life and the building of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic South Africa”. DM


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