Will the Bela bill help improve our schools?

16 November 2017 - 07:22 By jonathan jansen
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School desks
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

Bela is driving parents crazy. One source claims that 100000 parents have signed a petition against the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill recently gazetted by the government. The bill returns to three key policy controversies that the national Department of Education has stoked over the years - language policy, pupil admissions and teacher appointments.

From the parents' point of view, the changes erode their democratic rights through the school governing body to make or recommend decisions on these key policies. From the department's point of view, the changes are necessary for the transformation of schools. Both parties, in my view, are to blame for this standoff.

I am convinced that many white-dominant schools, particularly Afrikaans institutions, use their language policies as one of the instruments for limiting black enrolments. Do not be fooled by the argument about language rights and the constitution; by limiting instruction to Afrikaans, most black African pupils (and teachers) are effectively excluded. That works well for racially minded if not racist parent bodies.

The department, therefore, has a point in requiring more than one language of instruction as a means of opening up these schools to all our children. It is no coincidence that the resistance to this proposed policy shift comes from right-wing organisations that have suddenly acquired a taste for democracy.

In the same way, by controlling pupil admissions through a school policy on "catchment areas", only white and recently arrived black middle-class parents from the area surrounding a school qualify for access. In this way the most prominent white English schools remain white and privileged through this handy instrument of exclusion.

When it comes to teacher appointments, the record shows that since 1994 school governing bodies tend to hire teachers of the school's dominant race and language group. Even when a competitive black teacher is on the short list, the tendency is to appoint the white teacher. That is what white parents want and there is no shortage of anecdotes that many middle-class black parents also want white teachers.

These three proposed policy changes are an attempt to change once and for all the racial balkanisation of South Africa's public schools. But will it work?

I do not for one moment trust the government to do a better job of transforming our white schools. To begin with, this government does not care about standards of teaching. It is much less concerned with finding the best available black teachers. No, its ideological attachment is to any black teacher with the minimum of qualifications and experience.

I do not trust the government to uphold academic standards in our schools, as the abysmal state of our majority schools demonstrates. Nor am I convinced that this government has the will or capacity to stem the corruption in teacher appointments when unions and politicians begin to infiltrate SGB decisions. And when public schools (as opposed to universities) open their doors to English-language instruction, Afrikaans teachers and children leave the school because of the decisive shift in the racial demographics of the institution.

So what is to be done? To begin with, the government should not change the policy framework for school governance. What it should rather do is to work with white-dominant schools through a combination of persuasion, support, incentives and, if necessary, penalty to open their schools to more black pupils and especially more black teachers. A big policy stick is not necessary. So, for example, if English-language instruction is gradually introduced, the state should provide the resources to appoint competent teachers to do the job. Schools should be encouraged to take a percentage of pupils from outside the catchment areas to provide access to quality education for poor and promising pupils stuck in the townships. And the department could help establishment teachers with how to teach for equity, diversion and inclusion as the school profile changes.

My colleagues and I find that more than ever before white-dominant schools, both public and private, are reaching out for help. Recent high school protests have shaken school leaders and teachers; they know something has to change. This is the time for the government to press home the need to adjust language, admission and teacher appointment policies.

What we cannot afford in South Africa is a mass-based public school system that is black, poor and dysfunctional and a small elite school system that is white, privileged and increasingly privatised. The bill, if approved, makes this outcome inevitable.

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