Comments on “illegal independent schools”

16  December 2017

Attention: Ms P Ngcobo

Dear Ms P Ngcobo,

Draft POLICY ON HOME EDUCATION – Comments on “illegal independent schools.”

I am most grateful for the extended deadline for comments on the draft Policy on Home Education and wish to focus in this submission on the phenomenon of “illegal independent schools”.

Executive Summary

The draft policy makes mention of “illegal independent schools” commonly referred to as cottage schools, in three places.

The laws and policies that govern South Africa’s independent schooling system raise issues affecting the rights of learners and their parents and the private individuals that establish and run these educational centres.

Instead of consulting with role players, the DBE has sought to outlaw a new industry that is mushrooming on the educational landscape in South Africa.

This is a major blunder on the part of the DBE and will potentially have negative consequences for all parties concerned.

The DBE needs to reconsider this decision and engage in meaningful consultations with the cottage school industry so that regulations, which respect the constitutional rights and freedom of individuals, which are practical and mutually-agreeable, can be formulated to help improve this new, unique, educational sector.

Background

I am both a home educating parent of 20 years, a provider of uniquely South African homeschool curriculum products and a home education consultant.

I have had experience with many parents of children looking for cottage schools as well as owners of cottage schools, who contact me for advice and resources for this form of education. I have participated on cottage school platforms on social media for some years and become well acquainted with this industry and some of its role players. I have also sometimes been consulted in situations where there was conflict between a parent and a cottage school.

Further, for the past 18 months I have been educating a close family member’s child who does not live in my home, so technically I have been operating a cottage school for one, while home educating the remaining 5 of my own 6 children, who are still at home.

The reasons that parents choose to send their children to a cottage school are many and varied. In most cases, this choice stems from the state school system being unable to meet the learning needs of the child or negative aspects encountered in the school system such as bullying, violence, labelling, name-calling by teachers, pressure to medicate children with Ritalin or similar drugs and/or extreme anxiety or depression on the part of the child.

Parents find that this sector provides solutions for their children’s educational needs, which are not available in the mainstream school system.

In some cases, such as the case of the child I have been schooling, she herself, asked to be removed from school at a time when she was experiencing emotional turmoil at home. She chose to join our family to be educated in a place where she could get individual attention, where there was family who know her intimately, who understand her circumstances and cared about her emotional well-being. Her parents both agreed that this would be in her best interests. They all saw the many other advantages of education in a home-away-from-home.

Many parents choose a cottage school for similar reasons. They believe it is in the best interests of their child for the child to be educated in a cottage school environment, where classes are small and children can get the individual attention they need to reach their full potential. Children need to feel emotionally safe to learn and for many, this is not possible in mainstream classrooms.

In some cases, parents are advised by the school to remove their child as the teachers know that they can’t give the child the academic support s/he needs.

One parent was told to remove her child from school in grade 1. She was told he would never get matric due to being on the Autism spectrum. She started homeschooling him, then 8 years ago started schooling other children with learning difficulties and in 2017 her son, age 18, completed a foreign grade 12 equivalent and has been accepted to university for 2018. So have many other learners at this cottage school.

This is just one of many, incredible success stories about children who have attended cottage schools, which have given them an individualized education and enabled them to progress academically, heal from the emotional damage they experienced at school, improve their self-confidence and discover that they can succeed at whatever they choose to do, despite learning difficulties.

Comment

It is therefore very distressing to see that the Draft Policy refers to cottage schools as “illegal independent educational institutions” and effectively outlaws parents who send their children to cottage schools.

Draft Policy on Home Education

Definitions: “illegal independent educational institution” means a variety of independent educational institutions operating like schools such as cottage school, tutor centre, home school centres, tutorial centre whilst not registered with a PED in terms of the act;

Section 8(2)(2) “an illegal independent educational institution i.e. unregistered with the state in terms of the Act such as certain institutions that have become commonly known as tutorial centres, cottage schools and micro schools do not form part of the scope of home education.”

Section 10(1) the responsibilities and roles of the parent shall include but not limited to- … (k)(iii) associate herself or himself or cause the child to be associated with any illegal independent educational institution in respect of the home education provision. Such an association in violation of the act, is not in the best interests of the learner, and shall amount to a reason upon which the HOD may investigate and which may lead to withdrawal of the registration of a learner to receive education at home.

The very reason for the success of so many of these cottage schools rests on the fact that they are NOT independent replicas of the state school system, which is essentially what most registered independent schools are forced to be.

They are successful because they follow different pedagogical models, have different philosophies of learning and do not have to follow the CAPS curriculum used in state and registered independent schools. Because of these and many other factors, they are unable to fulfil many of the provincial requirements for registration as independent schools.

Secondly, since many of them only enrol a small number of learners, it is not financially viable to go through the red tape that is required for registration.

It is undeniable that this model of education is snowballing in South Africa as more and more parents are dissatisfied with the state school system and can’t afford private schooling and do not wish to implement home education.

The problem with these schools being illegal, is that most of them do not advertise openly and operate ‘underground’ and there is therefore, very little accountability in the industry.
There are some which are reported to be ripping off desperate parents by delivering an unsatisfactory service.

If cottage schools were legalised, the industry could more easily self-regulate. For example, much like bed-and-breakfasts can advertise their establishments on accommodation websites where clients can rate their services and give reviews of their experiences, so too cottage schools could be regulated by similar websites.

In this way, the good cottage schools will be glad to be listed and advertise their services and the fly-by-nights and scammers will either stay under the radar and not get listed on such websites or they will be exposed by their dissatisfied clients.

Parents will be in a better position to check on the reputation of cottage schools before enrolling their children at centres that offer an inferior service.

Just like government does not have to monitor and control the service at restaurants and BnB’s, but they operate and succeed based on their good service and good reputation, so too cottage schools should be legalised and allowed to self-regulate as free market business enterprises.

Since parents who place their children in these schools are primarily responsible for the education of their children, it is the parent’s task to ensure that the child’s right to a basic education is being realised. It is the parent’s role to ensure that the education received is in the child’s best interests. This is a point that the DBE needs to concede.

Parents who choose something other than mainstream schooling for their children are not children that the DBE needs to control, instead they should be respected as free thinking, responsible, adult citizens who can take responsibility for their actions and choices for their children.

With the legalisation of cottage schools, networking in the industry and the sharing of essential information to help both owners and parents would also be facilitated: For example, information about complying with municipal and safety regulations,  questions for parents to ask cottage schools before enrolling a child and guidelines of how cottage schools should report back to parents on the progress of the learners. Guidelines for avoiding or dealing with potential conflicts between schools and parents could also be more easily shared.

Making cottage schools illegal in the current educational climate in South Africa, is not going to make this phenomenon go away, it is just going to make it go underground.

The best possible solution is to legalise cottage schools and to engage with the cottage school industry to ensure compliance with a minimum of mutually agreed-upon regulations.

The DBE needs to take steps to cultivate an atmosphere of trust before there will be any chance of open and constructive dialogue with the cottage school industry.

Firstly, the DBE needs to acknowledge that cottage schools are catering for a vast number of learners whose needs cannot be accommodated in the state school system. They are providing a service that is essential for many children to realise their right to a basic education outside of the school system.

The DBE needs to respect the choice of parents who are intimately positioned to be able to decide what is in the best interests of their own children. The DBE might be knowledgeable on classroom didactics and educational management, but officials of the DBE do not know what is best for individual children.

The DBE needs to declare a period of amnesty so that cottage school owners will be willing to engage and negotiate without fear of persecution and prosecution.

The DBE needs to recognise that too many rules, regulations and expensive red tape will be counter productive and will just drive cottage schools underground once more.

Imposing a school model of education on cottage schools will destroy the many benefits they currently offer.

This is an innovative sector and they should be encouraged to continue to find and to provide solutions for the learners they serve.

The DBE needs to allow parents and cottage school owners to resolve their conflicts just like any other citizens conducting business do, in civil courts if necessary and not try to micro-manage an industry that is already operating successfully most of the time.

Conclusion

Most cottage schools offer a form of education that is vastly different from the state school system and they are able to give children an individualised education.

Many cottage schools cater not only for the academic needs of the learners but also their emotional needs, which has a big impact on the child’s ability to learn.

A growing, but unknown number of parents are dissatisfied with the mainstream school system and are choosing this form of education for their children as they believe it is in their children’s best interests. It offers solutions which are not provided elsewhere.

Since parents are the best persons to decide what is in the best interests of a child, until proven otherwise, the DBE needs to respect the choices of citizens and their freedom instead of criminalising this choice of schooling.

The school system is so dysfunctional at present that outlawing cottage schools will not cause them to disappear, instead it will drive them further underground.

To minimise some of the problems in the cottage school industry such as learning centres that are not serving their clients well, the industry needs to be legalised so that it can be openly self-regulated in a free market economy.

The DBE needs to engage with role-players and establish a minimum of mutually-agree upon regulations to help cottage schools to function effectively and serve the children who attend them well.

In order to give cottage school owners the courage to engage with the DBE, there needs to be a period of amnesty for unregistered independent schools and the DBE needs to express appreciation and respect for the role these innovative schools are playing on the educational landscape, acknowledge the good work they are doing in catering for learners whose needs are not easily met in the mainstream system and cultivate an atmosphere of trust.

“Democracy is a fragile and complex matter, which needs constant scrutiny of all in society. It is important for legislators to stay in tune with people in all sectors of society and take steps to ensure legislation keeps pace with and addresses the needs of the people in a way that is meaningful to them.” ~ Kenneth Meshoe, National Assembly, 28 November 2017

Shirley Erwee