Far from fixing South Africa’s schooling crisis, the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill, now before the National Council of Provinces, will likely make it even worse, warns the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).
The IRR points out in a statement that ‘the main aim of the BELA Bill is to authorise provincial bureaucrats to compel elected school governing bodies (SGBs) to change the admission and language policies of public schools without regard to what parents and pupils might prefer’.
Says IRR head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery: ‘The Bill could allow the ANC’s deployed cadres to demand damaging 50:50 racial quotas in all public school admissions, as Lindiwe Sisulu – then minister of tourism and chair of the ANC’s Social Transformation Committee – recommended in 2022.
‘Given the ANC’s increasing determination to achieve demographic representivity in every sphere, bureaucrats might also in time demand that minority admissions be limited to 4% for “whites”, 7.5% for so-called “coloureds”, and 1.5% for “Indians”,’ she adds.
The IRR says that under the Bill, single-medium Afrikaans public schools – now numbering some 1 260 out of 22 600 – ‘will probably be compelled to start teaching in English too’. However, the Bill’s wording ‘is broad enough to require that all public schools start teaching in isiXhosa, isiZulu, and other official languages, in addition to English and/or Afrikaans’.
Dr Jeffery notes: ‘Mother-tongue schooling has value, but many parents want their children to be taught in English. Shortages of teachers and teaching materials may also make it difficult to implement the policy successfully, while the attempt to do so could overburden many schools. In addition, a change of this magnitude should be debated and decided by Parliament, not introduced by bureaucrats under the BELA Bill.’
More seriously still, these increased powers for the state will do nothing to address the growing crisis in schooling. Yet 80% of public schools are dysfunctional, while some 81% Grade 4s cannot read for meaning in any language. In 2017 roughly 60% of Grade 5 pupils were unable to add and subtract whole numbers.
Says Dr Jeffery: ‘When the high drop-out rate is taken into account, the “real” National Senior Certificate (NSC) pass rate in 2023 was not the 83% trumpeted by the government but a meagre 47%. (Some 1.2 million pupils began school in 2012, but about 635 000 left without obtaining a matric.)
‘NSC requirements have also been dumbed down to the point where pupils can “pass” with as little as 30% in three subjects and 40% in three others. Many who “pass” on this basis are functionally illiterate and innumerate – lacking the foundation for either on-the-job training or success in tertiary studies.’
The IRR says that thirty years of ANC rule ‘have brought about a significant deterioration in the quality of public schooling’.
‘One crucial reason is poor teaching by educators whose salaries have grown beyond the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average but who have limited subject knowledge, inadequate pedagogical skills, and little accountability.
Adds Dr Jeffery: ‘The BELA Bill cannot solve these problems. Instead, it will sideline parents and their elected SGBs, while concentrating yet more power in an inept and self-serving bureaucracy with little interest in improving the quality of schooling.
‘The real need is to end the inefficient and top-down way in which schooling is currently delivered. This can be achieved by redirecting much of the revenue now being badly spent by the government into tax-funded vouchers for schooling for low-income households.
‘Families empowered in this way would have real choices. Schools would have to compete for their custom, which would keep costs down and push quality up. Dysfunctional public schools would have powerful incentives to improve, while many more independent schools would be established to help meet burgeoning demand.
‘This reform would truly empower the disadvantaged by giving them the same choices as the middle class enjoy. It would also bring about a rapid increase in the quality of schooling – as other countries that have introduced school vouchers have already found.’
The IRR’s written submission to the National Council of Provinces on the BELA Bill can be found here.