Education law amendments should improve quality of life and unlock potential, says FEDSAS to portfolio committee on basic education

15/11/2022 - Fedsas

Any changes to the Schools’ Act should be carefully weighed against the Constitution, the core document that guides legislation in South Africa. One of the principles in the preamble to the Constitution is that it should improve the quality of life for all and unlock the potential of all people.

The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS) says in its presentation to the portfolio committee on basic education the Education Laws Amendment Bill, or Bela, should be tested against this principle. FEDSAS is making a presentation to the committee today (Tuesday,15 November 2022).

“FEDSAS’s commentary was guided by two questions: How might the amendment of education laws contribute to the improvement of quality education to which every child is entitled? And would the proposed amendments improve the experience and quality of the education children are receiving currently? It is important to understand that this legislation is not just an ordinary legal process but that it speaks to the core of our Constitution,” says Dr. Jaco Deacon, CEO of EDSAS.

Deacon says FEDSAS understands that this is the first amendment bill before this portfolio committee and therefore FEDSAS’s approach is to make a constructive contribution. “FEDSAS is involved with schools and provincial education departments at grassroots level in all nine provinces. As a result, the organisation is in a unique position to comment on Bela.”

In its presentation, FEDSAS is highlighting five amendments that will not contribute to the spirit and aims of the South African Schools’ Act, judgements by the Constitutional Court or the Constitution.

Two of these proposed amendments give provincial education heads of department the power to make a final decision on a school’s policy on admission and language. Deacon says both these amendments go directly against the principle of cooperative governance on which the model for public schools was built.

“This centralisation of power is exactly what the two White Papers (the precursor documents of today’s Schools’ Act) that describes the distribution of power in education are trying to prevent,” says Deacon. Deacon says these amendments even contradict another amendment that proposes certain powers pertaining to admission to reside with the Minister of Basic Education. “The amendment on admission policy together with amendments to the determination of language policy create the impression that only the State may decide which powers parents may have. This takes us back to a totalitarian state and will do nothing to improve education.”

Another amendment which is of concern to FEDSAS is the declaration of financial interest by members of a school’s governing body. “This is simply unreasonable and might result in parents not being willing to serve on an SGB. The scope of financial interests to be declared is too wide and not at all relevant to the functions of an SGB. It makes sense that conflicts of interest should be managed but the requirement to declare personal information so comprehensively is excessive.”

The centralisation of procuring learning material is another aspect that is problematic. Deacon says although the amendment appears to make sense, in practice it would be almost impossible to give effect to it, which would create a breeding ground for corruption. “Current education legislation provides for SGBs to become more responsible for the management of recurring expenditure. Teaching and learning material is an example. Rather hold SGBs accountable when such a body does not execute its functions properly. As it stands, the amendment will punish all governing bodies in advance instead of cementing accountability as a principle of governance.”

The fifth proposed amendment that makes no concrete contribution is the requirement that SGBs submit quarterly reports on all income and expenditure. “SGBs are required to submit audited annual financial statements. What purpose does a paper exercise like quarterly reports serve? Such a requirement could be set where justified, of course. However, rules should not be made to manage exceptions but rather to provide a framework to guide operational tasks and decision-making. Act against bad apples and allow the rest to manage their business without interference. The action can be executed within the existing legislation.”

Deacon says it is important for FEDSAS to be a partner in education. “FEDSAS has proven experience of school governance. Our presentation to the portfolio committee should be see as a contribution based on expertise in school governance and education law. FEDSAS wants to play a role, in accordance with the Constitution, in improving the quality of life of all citizens and unlocking the potential of all people. It starts with quality education.”

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