For about 20 years after it was legalized in 1996, homeschooling grew exponentially in South Africa. Thousands of families discovered that home education allowed them to raise their children in a safe environment, where they could be taught according to their individual needs.
During this period there were a few attempts by the state to interfere in home education, but the mere existence of a legal defense fund (Pestalozzi Trust) prohibited officials to follow through with these attempts.
Then came the publication of Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill) in 2017.
In 1996 there were about 50 homeschooling families in South Africa. In 2011 a question on home education was included in the national census. According to the results, 56,857 children received home education in South Africa. If all these students were to be accommodated in schools it would require 130 buildings and 2,000 teachers at a cost of R700 million ($60 million) per year.
An estimated 100,000 students were homeschooled in 2017.
Because the majority of these home learners were not registered with the state, there was pressure on the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to review the home education policy in order to satisfy the desire of the education minister to bring home education in conformance with “the formal education system.”
Invited to be ignored
Because a new policy requires public participation, representatives from homeschool associations and the Pestalozzi Trust were invited to meetings with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in October 2014 and July 2015. Many of the associations were sceptical about attending these meetings, because it often happens that the DBE pretends to consult with stakeholders while steamrolling toward a pre-determined outcome.
Regardless, the associations decided to attend the meetings as an act of good faith. The meetings were generally experienced as positive with ample opportunity for discussion and presenting the case for home education.
After these two meetings, the actual drafting process began. Three people from homeschooling organisations received invitations to these meetings in their personal capacities. Before the first workgroup meeting on October 14, 2015, an agenda and a progress report were distributed.
The progress report declared: “Government remains the ultimate guardian of each and every child in the country and this includes the responsibility of ensuring that every child receives education.”
This statement caused the invitees to become increasingly concerned that the purpose of the working group meeting was not to consult with stakeholders, but to use stakeholders merely to provide legitimacy to a pre-determined outcome. During the working group meetings these concerns were confirmed, and after the second meeting all the homeschoolers withdrew from the workgroup activities. It was clear to all that the homeschool organisations were invited merely to be ignored.
BELA Bill and the Avalanche
There was no public participation in the drafting of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (BELA Bill). On October 13, 2017, the DBE invited public comment on the BELA Bill.
Homeschool organisations did not receive any prior notification about this and the public was given less than a month to submit comments. If a vigilant home educator had not noticed this in a press article and alerted organisations of home educators, the deadline for comment could easily have passed by without any comment or input from the home education community.
The most important changes that the bill introduces include:
- The content and skills of the curriculum to be used by home learners must be at least comparable to the national curriculum.
- Home learners must be assessed annually by registered assessors at their own cost.
- Home learners are not allowed to enroll for alternative matric qualifications such as Cambridge and GED.
- The penalty for not attending school is increased from 6 months to 6 years imprisonment.
The main objections to the BELA Bill were:
- The provision that home learners must register with the state is unreasonable and negatively affects the interests of children. It is untenable that parents, who are primarily responsible for the education of their children, require permission from the state to choose home education.
- The requirement that the proposed home education program must cover contents and skills comparable to the national curriculum prohibits parents from choosing a curriculum or educational approach that would be in the best interests of the child, and which would not necessarily cover comparable skills and contents.
- The requirement for annual assessments by external assessors serves no educational purpose, covertly enforces the national curriculum and will be costly to homeschooling parents and the taxpayer.
- The provision to outlaw alternative matric qualifications such as Cambridge and GED would significantly limit the rights of young people that do not have a school leaving diploma to get access to further education and employment.
On November 10, 2017 the Pestalozzi Trust and all the homeschool associations submitted their comments on the BELA Bill to the DBE. A total of about 1,000 letters from homeschoolers were sent to the DBE. During a meeting in parliament a senior official described this response as an avalanche.
From the process followed and the content of the bill, it seems that the intention of the DBE is to gain control over home education as well as to financially benefit unions and state-compliant curriculum suppliers, without consulting homeschooling parents and without providing any evidence that such measures will be in the best interests of the affected children.
The long road to freedom
The introduction of this bill is the first battle in a war between the state and parents over the hearts and minds of their children. This war could last for decades and will be waged in all spheres of government, namely the executive, legislative and judicial spheres.
South African homeschooling parents will need to get involved to resist changes that negatively affect home education by using all opportunities to attend public meetings, writing letters, interacting with the media, talking to government officials and members of parliament, etc.
Home education has a track record of success in preparing children to become independent and productive citizens in the 21st century. If parents allow the state to gain control over home education and manage it into destruction, as it has done with many departments and state-owned entities, it will not only destroy the future of many children, but also seriously harm the hope for a better future in South Africa.