Notes and Impressions of the meeting of the Portfolio Committee of Basic Education
28 November 2017 by Shirley Erwee
I know that as a home educating mother, if I could not have attended this meeting myself, I would have wished for a blow-by-blow description of what happened. Most of us are stay-at-home parents, who are not familiar with formal meetings, so I’ve tried to describe it in as much detail as possible, reporting the comments I managed to jot down and some of my own thoughts about them.
First impression – members of the public, who are not accustomed to attending meetings of this nature, were given no helpful instructions about practical things such as where to enter the building, that identification needs to be presented and that we would need queue up to pass through security checks in a check-in process. Thankfully, we arrived early, we all had ID’s and so we made it through and found our way to the venue, just in time to be punctual.
Second impression – there were not enough seats around the room for the public visitors. It was a board room with a long table and about 18 officials seated at the table with microphones for each person. After a shuffle, almost enough chairs were brought in. Two members of the public were seated on the plush carpet for the duration of the meeting.
Third impression – there were probably about 16-18 members of the public seated around the perimeter of the rather stuffy room. Eight of them were homeschoolers plus a baby. Two were from FORSA. At least one was from Afriforum, one from Christian View Network. I don’t know who the others were. Homeschoolers were by far the majority among the ‘spectators’! Probably the youngest ever attendee at such a meeting was 4-month-old baby, Eliana Jansen, who accompanied her home educating, parents. She was silent throughout the meeting! One of my sons, Jonathan, age 17 also attended. He was the only “learner” present, according to the definition of the DBE.
Fourth comment – none of the members of the Portfolio Committee or officials from the DBE who participated in the meeting had name tags or name boards to help us identify them. They seemed very familiar with each other. I have had to consult the website of Parliament to identify those whose unfamiliar names I didn’t hear clearly in the meeting.
Conclusion of first impressions: Allowing the public attend this meeting was a necessary procedure but no extra effort was made to facilitate this.
Commencement of the Meeting
The chairperson, Ms Gina (left) welcomed everyone and explained the format of the meeting.
Mr Ian Ollis of the DA made a point of asking if the Minister was invited to the meeting or had sent apologies. He was disappointed that she was not present to answer his questions in person, on this serious matter of the BELA Bill.
Ms Gina replied that the Minister is always invited, but that the Deputy Minister, Mr Surty, might join the meeting late as he was at another meeting.
The Director General (DG), Mathanzima Mweli (left), explained that the DBE has received an “unprecedented response” from the public in response to the BELA Bill. He said that they are considering “holding public hearings to help the public understand the rationale behind the BELA Bill.”
We were then given a short slideshow which briefly ran through each clause, the topic it addressed, a brief outline of the amendments and the rationale behind each one. For most of them, this was just a couple of sentences, no details.
When it came to Clause 25 which deals with Home Education, we were told it deals with the “procedures for home education”. Nothing further was said on that topic for the entire meeting.
[This is exactly what I expected – a meeting focusing mainly on the school system and how the BELA Bill amendments will affect schools, parents, teachers and learners.]
The interesting part of the meeting followed this slide show. This was when the various Honourable Members of Parliament could ask questions and raise their concerns about the BELA Bill. They are referred to by the title Honourable [Surname] in such formal meetings.
Hon. Ollis (DA)
First, he said the unprecedented number of submissions received “sounds like an avalanche”! He said that he believes the reason for this is because the DBE is “tampering with the democratic rights of parents.”
He challenged the DG for speaking about processing the inputs received, but making no mention of making any amendments to the BELA Bill in response to the submissions from the public. He said the underlying assumption is that the public is uninformed and should be educated until they agree with the Bill.
He reminded the DBE that the correct practice is to LISTEN to the public and then make the necessary AMENDMENTS accordingly. The DBE needs to take the inputs seriously. “The public has a right to be heard and not dismissed,” he said.
The second concern, Mr Ollis raised was regarding the removal of the powers of school governing bodies (SGBs) and giving this power to the Head of Department (HOD).
He used an example to highlight his deep concern:
In the Northern Cape, a Mr. Coetzee had a sexual liaison with a learner whom he impregnated. He was dismissed from his post as a teacher. The HOD then overruled the SGB and appointed this same Mr. Coetzee as the principal in that very same school. The SGB had to go to court and the court ruled in their favour.
Mr Ollis expressed his concern that the DBE wants to take away the rights of the SGB and give them to the HOD but this case he said, was just one example of an HOD that behaved badly. He said this is just ONE of the problems with this proposed amendment in the BELA Bill.
“Parents don’t trust the HOD as an individual.”
He said an HOD on his/her own should not be given such power.
He closed by reiterating that the DBE should take the public’s opinion seriously and consider making amendments to the draft Bill.
Hon. Dudley (ACDP)
She asked the DG, “To what degree have you processed the “avalanche” of inputs and is it impacting the presentation today?”
She reminded the DBE of a case where the public input was ignored and the court rejected hearing a case because of this procedural error.
She stated, “We don’t have funds to waste on Constitutional challenges.”
She said that the rights of parents are seriously undermined by the proposals in the BELA Bill and suggested that there should rather only be such drastic intervention in situations where there is “incapacity”: “Special measures for special cases” to deal with individual problems, instead of painting everyone with the same brush.
She said that in light of the reports of payment for positions, that parents want to protect the education of their children. The DBE should err on the side of reassuring parents that they (parents) have oversight of these procedures.
She concluded that public hearings are needed.
Honourable Khosa (ANC)
Mr Khosa urged the DBE to take the public input seriously and address their concerns in the proper manner. He asked, “How is the DBE with consulting stakeholders like SGBs.”
Honourable Marchesi (DA)
Ms. Marchesi said that in response to the outcry that she is concerned about whether all people have been given the opportunity to comment, such as people living in rural areas. The Bill was only published in English and Afrikaans and in this way, it has not included people of other language groups.
She is concerned that there has not been adequate public participation.
With regards to the matter of the powers being taken from SGBs with respect to the appointment of teachers and principals, she noted that the DBE is the only department to have investigated the jobs for cash problem. Now, they want to take those powers away from parents. She said, “The problem does not warrant the kind of steps that this Bill seeks to take.”
She reminded the DBE that the state faces huge challenges of corruption and that they need to reconsider that aspect.
[The implication that I understood, was that because of the jobs for cash scandals and the corruption that has been uncovered, that the DBE needs to reassure parents and therefore should not disempower the SGB’s with regards to appointments of staff in schools.]
Hon. Mokoto (ANC)
This soft-spoken lady said she is concerned about the changes in the penalty for preventing learners from attending school that is proposed to change from 3 months to 6 years. She was concerned about language policy issues and about the issues affecting SGBs.
She said that some are performing very well, but some are not and the DBE takes the rap for that.
She asked if the DBE can afford some of the changes that are being proposed.
Hon. Mguni (ANC)
Mr Mguni said there are many things that need urgent scrutiny. [I like what he said next:]
When you have worked out an amendment, it must not be one that fits the bureaucracy, but not the people that it affects.
[This is clearly applicable to the issues regarding home education and especially the monitoring and assessment requirements, whereby the DBE seems intent on making homeschoolers fit their administrative machine with its one-size-fits-all approach to education.]
It got better: “The problem with this talk-down approach is that it will cause a lot of problems, instead of solving them.”
“A good strategy is a bottom up approach. Don’t think you are ‘cleverer’ than the masses!
[I like these comments!]
With regards to SGBs, he asked: “Is it right to take out their rights? Some of the amendments are good,” he said, “but they need further deliberation.”
He reminded the DBE officials that when it was discovered that there were posts sold for cash, this information came from parents. He said he was concerned that the HOD will delegate these duties (of overseeing appointments) and he asked, “Are we sure that those people will not make the issues worse?”
He then raised his concerns on the matter of school fees. Some schools have a “quick-buck-making scheme”. Some schools, reported in the latest issue of the Sunday Times, 26 November, have increased their fees by more than 8 percent. Some schools are doing credit checks on parents.
He also mentioned that although parents serving on SGBs are not paid, some are enjoying a 50% discount on their school fees.
He said that schools with fees that are more than what it costs to attend university are a problem.
Next he referred to Clause 23.
He said that it is good idea that schools must be audited, but the challenge is, “Does the DBE have the human capacity for what this entails?” For example, in a small school, the principal often ends us being everything, i.e. fulfills a range of different jobs and functions and often ends up being very frustrated. “Are you [the DBE] prepared to give human resources, such as someone to attend to the finances in a school, so that the school can be ready for an audit? Are you making sure the capacity is there?”
With regards to the penalty clause – increasing the penalty from 3 months to 6 years if someone obstructs a learner from attending school. Mr Mguni said this must be seen to be IMPLEMENTED or else it will never scare off the wrong-doers.
The DBE needs to “translate the capacity into action”!
Hon. Basson (ANC)
She wanted to know what it is that is provoking the community so much, that they are commenting on this Bill in the media almost daily.
With reference to Clause 13 that deals with religion and exemption she asked: “What if every child applies for exemption? To what extent are the children going to be allowed to practice their beliefs?”
With regards to family members of employees of the DBE having to reveal business interests with a school, she asked, “Who is your family?”
Deputy Minister Surty
The Deputy Minister (DM) had arrived by this time, part way during the previous question session. He explained that since all education officials were in this meeting, he had to face the questions in another meeting alone. Mr Ollis noted then that the Minister was also not at that meeting. Mr Surty gave her apologies saying she was attending to other pressing matters and then responded to the questions and issues previously raised as follows:
He assured the Portfolio Committee that the processing committee of the DBE will be sorting through the comments and that any useful comments that they find, might guide the DBE.
He explained the rest of the process: There will be further opportunity for public comments before the Bill is put to Parliament. Consultations will start anew, they may invite stakeholders to a hearing to put forward amendments to the Bill to the Minister, who will then take it to Cabinet for approval. It will probably take at least a year before it is gazetted.
Change is always difficult.
He said that in 1994 when President Nelson Mandela appointed Ismal Mohammed as the new Chief Justice there were 30 objects from white judges, who had a particular vested interest. Ultimately, it was a good choice and a lot of work has been done to make judges more representative and to include women too.
In KZN there was a case of a learner who wished to wear a nose stud to school for religious reasons, but the school said “no”. This was her Constitutional right and she was a good academic student with good discipline. The SGB went to the highest court to oppose her cultural and religious expression.
We live in a country with diverse religious beliefs. In the past, the school system was very homogenous. Classes were often all white and male or all white female, all Indian male or all Indian and female etc. Now we have a much more open and democratic environment and schools are more heterogenous. With regards to religion, a school may not prefer one religion above another. The school must respect the rights of all citizens to subscribe to any religion, so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
Changes are now needed as a result of many cases where the DBE had to intervene.
Another example – a very devout Muslim learner, who had memorised by heart, large portions of the Koran: He wanted to wear a beard to school as an expression of his religious devotion, but the school was intolerant of his religious expression. Therefore, we have to look at the context of social justice.
A second example – in Ermelo there was an Afrikaans medium school that was “half empty”. It was possible to introduce parallel medium education. There was space and there was funding but the SGB said “no” and the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the view of the SGB. [I suppose this is why the existing law must now be changed.]
The Constitutional Court is obliged to look at the BROAD interest, not just the local interests of a specific community.
SGB’s can’t impose unfair duties and obligations on parents.
It is not the intention of the DBE to exclude the participation of SGBs and trade unions.
When appointing leaders, it is not just about qualification and experience, but also competency. Leaders must have those criteria.
The DBE should not ignore the views of SGBs and unions. SGBs are not the final authorities on admission policies. There is a legal, historical and moral reason for changes.
The locus of authority is the HOD.[I think I heard that correctly, but speak under correction – there were people clattering and moving around at times during the meeting.]
Legislation allows the Minister to prescribe. This is not an attack on former model C schools. It’s a process of evolution. The principles and the context must be understood.
He said, “There is self-interest in the voices of protest. We have to look at the broader picture.”
He then reported that there has been an increase in the number of children attending no-fee schools and receiving a meal a day to 9 million. That took effort and change. An ideological political commitment is needed.
He said that the DBE is open to persuasion but not manipulation, such as when a principal gets a whole group of parents to sign an objection to the BELA Bill but they have no understanding of what it entails.
It is not the number of submissions, but the quality of submissions that is important.
During this long speech, at a point, Hon. Ollis interjected and the DM digressed and gave him a long and stern dressing down for not showing respect in the meeting and waiting his turn to speak. I found it a bit over the top. It reminded me too much of the way school teachers inconsistently demanded silence at times, but allowed comments and interruptions at other times in my own schooling! Perhaps Mr. Ollis’s comment hit a nerve.
Hon. Ollis responded afterwards saying he and Mr Surty have known each other for long and Mr Surty knows that he respects him. The tension was relieved amicably.
Hon. Marchesi again raised the issue of language and the communication process with the public.
Responding to the DMs comment about people present at the meeting representing their own interests, she again asked if people in the rural areas are aware of the BELA Bill issues. The public has had less than a month to respond, she said. [Actually, it was exactly one month]
She said that she has phoned principals in Khayelitsha township and they are not aware of the BELA Bill. She asked whether learners were given an opportunity to comment.
[ I know that some home educated learners have submitted comments. The Children’s Act says that children should have a say in matters that affect them, subject to their maturity.]
She said there needs to be more open communication [between the DBE and the public]: How do we educate the public about their rights? We take things for granted. When do we educate communities about these issues in our constituencies. Have we played our part well?
Deputy Minister Surty
The DM responded and said the Bill should be more accessible and it could possibly be made available in other languages. However, the costs to advertise a Bill in the gazette is huge so it might only be a few majority languages.
The National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces needs to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, so that they have better views and better access to them.
When asked until when the Minister has extended the date for late comments, he suggested that 10 January would be a fair time to close the extension for submitting comments.
The DG concluded the meeting saying that this process is about sharing information and giving a ‘listening ear’. There will be further opportunity for both the public and government to contribute to the processing of the final BELA Bill.
Although virtually nothing was said about home education, it was encouraging to see MP’s challenging the DBE officials on issues such as tampering with the democratic rights of parents, talking down, assuming the public are naïve, excluding people in rural areas and people of other languages, not giving learners a voice, making changes to suit the bureaucracy and not listening to the public outcry.
It seems that the ‘avalanche’ of submissions and the continual comments in the media on the BELA Bill have succeeded in bringing enough attention to the BELA Bill that public hearings are likely to be held. An end date of 10 January 2018, for late submissions was suggested by the Deputy Minister.
It seems that although home educators are a minority group affected by the BELA Bill, we are a force to be dealt with and we must keep up the pressure. The Pestalozzi Trust has reported that over 1000 of the 7000 submissions sent to the DBE were sent by home educators and about half of the public attendees at this meeting were concerned home educators.
Home education is only one of 46 clauses amended in the BELA Bill. However, the draft policy on Home Education, published in November deals solely with the procedures for home education. We cannot afford to become complacent. We must again send in an avalanche of quality submissions – submissions that are from our own unique perspectives, well-thought out, presenting our objections, arguments and recommendations to the DBE on the proposed policy for Home Education, so that they again sit up and pay attention to the hullabaloo we create!
And if they ignore us and this matter has to be settled in court one day, there will be a massive paper trail proving it!
The final dates for comment on the draft policy is 8 December 2017.
All it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.
We must fight for Home Education and to protect the best interests of our children.
Hear the audio recording of the meeting at this link:
The first 1h29 minutes focused on the BELA Bill. The remainder was the Quarterly Report of the DBE.
More Pages about the BELA Bill
A summary of many websites, press articles, letters to the press and other info about the BELA Bill and how to respond to the DBE’s call for comments.