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Abandon the draft Western Cape Provincial School Education Amendment Act

*Published by Daily Maverick 

An open letter to Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, and Western Cape MEC for Education Debbie Schäfer, from TSHEPO MOTSEPE, General Secretary of Equal Education.

Dear Minister Motshekga and MEC Schäfer,

Constitutionally suspect, contrary to the spirit of democracy, and unlikely to improve educational outcomes – these are just a few of the concerns that Equal Education (EE) has about the draft Western Cape Provincial School Education Amendment Bill.

That the amendment seeks to introduce what is in effect privately run public schools in the form of so-called “collaboration” and “donor-funded” schools is the most worrying.

Given what is at stake – the very meaning of public education – it is surprising that the bill is so vague on what these schools will entail.

What we do know is that “school operating partners” and “donors” will be entitled to majority representation on school governing bodies (SGBs).

New public teacher appointments at these schools will involve the transfer of public money to operating partners, who will have full discretion over appointments.

The MEC will also be able to compel schools to become collaboration schools without the agreement of SGBs or parents.

The proposed model clearly contradicts the South African Schools Act (SASA). According to SASA, parents should be the majority on SGBs and only parents, school staff and pupils are allowed to be voting members.

These are serious developments – democratic school governance and parental control over education are ideals that emerged in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto protests, and were hard-won.

These principles are deeply embedded in our law and are essential to the continued struggle against historical inequalities in the school system. But the Amendment Bill removes strategic references to SASA in the provincial act. Why are you willing to discard these ideals so easily, MEC Schäfer?

Even more surprising, given the drastic powers afforded to these private actors, is that no criterion is introduced to indicate how they will be vetted and regulated, or whether for-profit enterprises can participate.

It is also frighteningly unclear whether these schools will be allowed to levy fees or implement selective admissions policies.

MEC Schäfer, why did you emphasise principles such as voluntary participation, no-fee status, non-selectiveness and non-profit partners in the pilot project, yet are not willing to commit to them in legal terms?

It further strikes us as odd that you only launched the five-year pilot project at the beginning of this year, and yet you already want to make this law. Surely this is premature?

Given the lack of any substantial insights from the pilot, it is worth noting that the overall effects of this kind of school model internationally are decidedly mixed. Well-performing schools of this kind are counterbalanced by many that perform poorly or no differently to before.

EE is not dogmatically opposed to developing and testing new models of education. We welcome innovation and additional investment into our schools.

However, it is not clear that the radical governance restructuring introduced by these amendments, is the key to achieve the education outcomes envisioned by the project.

Misplaced trust in monitoring

The amendments would further empower the WCED to establish an independent evaluation body, with vague and far-reaching powers.

The Western Cape Schools Evaluation Authority would be able to visit any classroom at two days’ notice, and report on any matter the MEC wishes.

There is already a national school monitoring policy – the Whole Schools Evaluation Framework – which works through the districts. This does not fit into that structure and possibly duplicates layers of bureaucracy.

Furthermore, focusing on monitoring without providing support is a strategy known to have little effect on school outcomes. It is striking that the amendments are silent on how schools will be supported.

If anything, it is districts and the provincial department that lack accountability.

MEC Schäfer, why will this body only report to you? How can it be truly independent if you have full discretion to hire and fire the Chief Evaluator?

And why are you so eager to focus on school failures while ignoring the failures of your own districts and department?

Intervention for who?

The amendments further allow for the creation of “intervention facilities” for learners found guilty of serious misconduct.

Given the history of reform schools under apartheid, and prolonged attempts to transform and finally close these, this amendment seems regressive.

Instead of stigmatising and isolating learners – a strategy that has been proven ineffective – resources should rather be focused on introducing proper support for all learners and making therapy available within schools.

Act decisively

EE recognises and supports the powers afforded to provincial governments by SASA. However, the picture that emerges from these amendments is of a province that sees itself as above national education legislation.

Minister Motshekga, we call on you to act decisively and not to allow national legislation, nor the spirit in which it was drafted, to be blatantly disregarded in this manner.

We hope you take note, Minister Motshekga, that the amendments ignore the very definition of education as a public good as well as the State’s responsibility to provide access to quality education, especially for poor learners. What we see here is the State giving up on its duty to improve underperforming schools itself.

Outsourcing might sound attractive in principle, but in practice few of the purported advantages are likely to be realised when providing education for the most disadvantaged learners.

It would be a sad day to see the important legacy of democratic school governance and the role of parents in schooling diminished for the sake of an experiment that has little chance of success.

MEC Schäfer, the introduction of privatised school models alongside a dubious evaluation body that is supposed to encourage “healthy competition” between schools reveals an increasing creep of privatisation and market principles into the education sector.

Such moves are generally associated with a narrowing of education outcomes and increased stratification between schools. Families with greater access to resources and information are able to exercise “school choice” and schools receiving support cream off top learners and teachers, while poor children get left behind in underperforming schools.

We urge you, MEC Schäfer, to recognise the serious implications of the proposed amendments and to abandon the Bill in its current form.

For now we will continue to mobilise communities against these proposals in defence of public education.

Photo: Tshepo Motsepe, General Secretary of Equal Education. (Photo by Ashely Furlong from GroundUp)

Leanne Jansen-ThomasAbandon the draft Western Cape Provincial School Education Amendment Act