There have been a few watchmen on the towers of education in South Africa in the past, but now it is time for all parents to step up and defend their basic rights to choose their children’s education. A dictatorship-styled state school plans to march into existence in South Africa and escort children back to a time when learners were required only to be servants of the state and not think for themselves. The state school was a dream of the communist eastern bloc countries before their economic crash that became a nightmare for all concerned.

The South African government’s proposed BELA (Basic Education Laws Amendment) Bill aims to remove any authority from school governing bodies and place all their duties in the hands of the state. This means the end of democratic education in South Africa and creates a state school. The BELA Bill also threatens public school viability, language choice, religious freedom, teacher appointments, home education, cottage schools and independent schools.

A system of education is an organic thing that grows, develops and changes according to the needs of the community and development of society into the future. Hopefully it is not something that remains entrenched in structures of the past with echoes of Victorian or Dickensian classes. In order for a nation to grow, develop and progress, education needs to be flexible and grow along with the nation. It needs to provide for differences among people. Every child is unique and deserves the right to learn according to his or her needs – whether this is a large public school or small cottage school.

Children cannot be put into the same moulds – they are not machine parts on a conveyor belt. What happens in this case, is that, like the nations in the communist eastern bloc, children slip further and further behind in their learning as they are limited by the state as to what is deemed appropriate. The South African Education Department cannot afford to become the slow learner of the world that fails a grade every year, yet is passed up after each phase – simply going through the motions of learning, but not achieving its goals.

Are we afraid in South Africa to actually allow teachers, parents and learners to think for themselves? In other countries that have shaken off old traditional chains of education, new methods and ways of learning are evolving, allowing children to think creatively. State education in South Africa currently has teachers and children so bound up in the constant rigour of marks, assessments, schedules and bureaucratic red tape that neither teacher nor learner benefits.

Parents should have the right to choose what they know to be in the best interests of their child, without the State dictating where and when to send children to school. It is of great concern that while small schools struggle to register with the Education Department due to administration and cost constraints as well as time delays, the Education Department is using bullying tactics to threaten small schools with closure to force compliance – as in the case of a school in Raslouw, Centurion (7 September, 2018).

BELA seeks to make the Head of Department of Education the all-seeing eye and all-powerful deciding factor in public, private and home education. Aside from the total interference in the rights of an individual to make choices, this makes the education bureaucracy even more top-heavy and this lumbering giant is not going to move quickly to support or assist. Rather it threatens those who keep their children out of school with up to six years in prison. There may be good reason to keep children out of government public schools where there is drug abuse, children are bullied and teachers completely demoralized at what they are expected to do with the facilities, funding and staff at their disposal.

A document like BELA completely underestimates the value of parents, their rights, choices and decisions in the lives of their own children. According to research from North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California, parental involvement in a child’s education is more important than the qualities of the school itself. Regulating school content is not what is going to make an impact in South Africa, but empowering parents to make the best choices for their children will change a generation.

Increasing numbers of children in South Africa are dropping out of high school. A study showed that teenagers who had good relationships – positive, trusting bonds with their school – were less likely to drop out. This kind of bond is more often found in small schools, not large public schools where children may become part of a faceless crowd.

In her research, Emily Gallagher cited numerous studies to show the importance of student-teacher relationships and how teachers play an important role in supporting, encouraging and forming positive bonds with students. This becomes even more important in high school to prevent high school drop-outs. In small, home-centred or cottage schools, teachers can give students, especially those who struggle, the time they need to learn, as opposed to charging through a government directed curriculum simply to finish work and get an assessment.

Small schools are the answer, not the stumbling block to learning in South Africa. Researchers Craig Howley, of Ohio University and Robert Bickel, of Marshall University, set out to find out whether smaller schools could reduce the negative effects of poverty on student achievement. In four studies of seven states, they found that poor children did better when they attended a small school. A study of four states found the link between poverty and poor grades was ten times stronger in larger schools than in smaller ones. Howley and Bickel found that the benefit of smaller schools was particularly important in the middle grades, when children were most at risk of dropping out.

The cost factor is also more feasible for most parents during our current stressful economic climate in South Africa and obviously teachers are more content with their work environment in smaller schools, leading to teachers staying in the profession and better results.

Modern thinking is that large schools should ideally be the exception, not the rule, in a forward-thinking nation. Children are not animals to be herded en masse into pens and treated as a homogenous crowd. This is what leads to rioting and conflict – not small groups who foster a culture of caring between teacher and learner.

Large public schools with fewer teachers on staff are just what South Africa does not need. Smaller schools, home tutoring centres or cottage schools with a strong focus on building trust between teachers and learners and individual attention are just what South African children need, especially those from more disadvantaged areas who need more attention and time to redress the balance and focus on gaps in learning areas.

Why is this a problem in legislation? Why is South Africa creating an educational behemoth that cannot deal with dramatic issues in its own public schools, yet seeks to dictate how, when and where children learn in small environments? Every day, there are shocking stories in the press about children being victimized, bullied, stabbed, drug abuse, gangs, rape etc in our government public schools. Yet it seems that the Education Department wants more of this and less of the smaller, home-centred learning environments.

School bullying is exacerbated by the large numbers of children squashed into public schools, fewer numbers of teachers and less funding by government for teacher salaries. BELA worsens this dilemma, as school governing body posts would be whittled away, leaving more children with less supervision. Is it any wonder that parents are looking for alternatives, especially for children who do need more attention in class time?

One could ask the question: Why do we live in a country where the social use of dagga is legalized, but the education of children in a cottage school is not? What does it say about priorities in South Africa? Currently, even cottage schools are required to register with the Department of Education, meaning that they must follow government requirements. However, at least 20 learners are needed to register and some cottage schools do not have that many children.

In January 2016, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) published a report on “The Real Cost of Compliance: the Impact of South African Regulatory Requirements on Independent Schools”. Research studied the amount of time independent schools had to give to compliance every year, including: subsidy application, registration, association membership, Umalusi accreditation, complying with skills development, financial management, registering foreign learners and teachers, complying with employment equity and health and safety.

CDE’s research showed that South African regulations are not enabling independent schools and that more demanded from independent schools than public ones. Yet low-fee independent schools could make a big difference in learning opportunities for poor South African children. CDE recommended that regulations be less of a burden and rather simplify the growth and development of low-fee independent schools.

If smaller schools were legalized, without the need of a government caretaker, the public would exercise quality control, as in the case of any small business, by either supporting or rejecting the enterprise. The last straw that breaks the back of the thinking teacher, or learner, in South Africa is the CAPS policy (Curriculum and Assessment Procedure and System) where learning is equated to a number. Everything, including Life Skills, PT, Character and Projects, has to have continuous assessment mark. Parents and teachers get used to talking about children as a 3 or a 4 or a 7. What is this? Does it have any value in terms of creative thinking and problem solving?

South Africans do not need the invasiveness of a Bill such as BELA or Policy that further restricts education choices. Instead this nation should be looking ahead to embrace more choices and more flexible education systems, without which this rainbow nation becomes monochromatic. Imagine the Grade 1 child who has, within reach, a jumbo box of crayons full of the most amazing colours to use on a rainbow picture and instead is allowed to use only one. South Africa has famously embraced its diversity as a rainbow nation. Let this country not disappoint itself, and its people, by turning the rainbow of learning into mass-produced greyscale education.

Instead of implementing old, failed systems of education, South Africa could look ahead and become a leader in innovation, design and modelling of new ways of learning that are as varied as the people in this land.

Ingela Richardson has a degree in English Lit (Hons) from Rhodes University, and an HDE from UCT. She has worked as a teacher in various educational sectors, including: public high school, college, private primary school, tutoring and presenting business communication courses.

comments