By the weekend of the 10th of November the Department of Basic Education (DBE) was scrambling to deal with a tsunami of public comment on the draft Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill. By early Friday afternoon over 6000 comments were received and more were flooding in every minute.
This wasn’t the nightmare the DBE expected when they quietly released the BELA Bill for comment on the 13th of October. But Homeschoolers, who had not been consulted till then, were not caught off-guard. The Pestalozzi Trust organized a response with the help of legal consultants, a facebook group and a campaign team. This effort mobilized the homeschooling movement and by the final count on Friday afternoon homeschoolers, who constitute less than 1% of the school going population, had submitted about a fifth of the comments. It is suspected that many of the 5000 non-homeschooling responses do not have the legal weight and depth of the comments that homeschoolers made.
This BELA Bill proposes to promote the best interests of children by using the threat of a 6 year prison sentence to force homeschooling families to use the national curriculum (also known as CAPS) and to be monitored by the state at the cost of the parents.
Given that the constitution requires that a child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child, the bill raises a number of questions:
- The national curriculum was introduced in 2003. Given that the South African education system still ranks among the lowest in the world, 14 years later, can we be certain that the national curriculum promotes the best interests of children?
- Given that there is no evidence that home learners that follow the national curriculum are educated significantly better than those that do not, can we be certain that making the national curriculum compulsory promotes the best interests of children?
- If the national curriculum is in the best interest of children, one would expect that homeschooling parents would embrace it with passion. Why is it necessary to coerce parents by means of a prison sentence to embrace it?
It is therefore doubtful that the national curriculum is so superior to other educational approaches that it justifies the destruction of families by jailing parents for 6 years and force children to follow the national curriculum at a public school while in foster care.
If there is no reason to believe that this bill is in the best interest of children, then the purpose of the bill must be to serve the interests of others.
Who might be the beneficiaries?
- CAPS aligned curriculum providers are the first beneficiaries, because the BELA Bill effectively outlaws their competition. Some providers have already used the publication of the BELA Bill as an opportunity to discredit alternative educational approaches and encourage parents to switch to their curriculum. One provider for instance makes the following statement on their website: "If you do not use a formal curriculum provider such as xxx, then it may be a good time to start now."
- Requiring home learners to be assessed by "competent assessors" (a term referring to teachers registered with SAQA), at the cost of parents, will create hundreds of jobs for teachers who cannot be accommodated in public schools, or who are not willing to work in public schools.
- The third beneficiary is the Department of Education that will establish a new bureaucracy with many officials to process hundreds of thousands of assessments at taxpayer expense. Assessment results can then be used to put pressure on parents to put their children back into public schools.
It is obvious that the bill was designed to infringe on the rights of children and parents in order to serve the commercial interests of others. It is therefore not surprising that this bill was met with fierce reaction from homeschooling families. Despite the unreasonable tight deadline, the Pestalozzi Trust, homeschool associations and at least a 1000 homeschooling families submitted comments by the 10th of November. People making submissions range from a 7 year old child (above picture is from the handwritten letter of this child) to a person who was home educated in the years 1947 to 1953, before it was outlawed by the apartheid government. More than 2700 responses were received to a survey designed to estimate the effect of the bill on homeschooling families. Prayer groups were organized and the unprecedented reaction shows that these prayers were answered beyond expectations.
The publication of the BELA Bill created a highly motivated, well-informed and unified movement. The families who wrote letters to the DBE studied the bill together with the constitution, international law and many other documents and wrote their own submissions.
It is hoped that the department will apply their minds to the more than a thousand letters, consider the comments with an open mind and rewrite the bill in the best interests of the children, and not in the commercial interests of CAPS providers, teachers and departmental employees.