Drastic changes to the Western Cape education law currently being considered in public hearings held by the provincial legislature, are receiving alarmingly little public and media attention.
Last year, when the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) first published the draft Amendment Bill for public comment, the provision allowing for the sale of alcohol on school premises rightly caused public outcry. As concerning as this provision is, it is not the only one that warrants careful scrutiny.
The amendments proposed by MEC Debbie Schäfer also include:
– the introduction of collaboration and donor-funded schools, at which donors and private entities are afforded a significant stake in the governance of public schools in a manner that undermines the principles of democratic governance and accountability.
– the introduction of intervention facilities for pupils found guilty of serious misconduct (a form of educational halfway house.
– the establishment of new school evaluation body that will report directly to the MEC.
In its submission on the Bill, Equal Education (EE) argues that many of the proposed amendments are variously unlawful, redundant, contrary to the spirit of democracy and redress in education, unlikely to improve educational outcomes, and potentially directly harmful.
The draft legislation is making its way through the provincial legislative process. Public hearings are scheduled to take place in Paarl on 14 August 2018 and in Cape Town on 21 August 2018. It is crucial to have robust engagement on the proposed laws, which will have a profound effect on the lives and futures of our children and our public education system.
Collaboration and Donor-funded schools
Crafted as new “types” of public schools, the Western Cape education department is hoping to entrench in law the concept of “collaboration schools” and “donor-funded public schools”.
If the proposal succeeds then private entities that contribute funds or property to a public school — donors — will in effect be in a position to “buy” representation and decision-making power on school governing bodies.
Although the draft legislation is incredibly vague, it appears that collaboration schools involve a relationship between donors, “operating partners”, the provincial education department and ultimately schools.
“Operating partners” are non-profit organisations that are authorised to assist in developing capacity at the school. This is not objectionable in itself. Indeed, building capacity at public schools is sorely needed.
But the proposed model has significant gaps and flaws. The relationship between the various stakeholders remains amorphous, the manner in which “partners” are selected and introduced into public schools is arguably undemocratic. The guiding criteria and systems of support, monitoring and accountability accompanying the involvement of external partners are vague and little is said about the flow of funds.
These are not trivial risks. Representatives of the operating partner are entitled to at least half the voting seats on a school governing body. In a typical school governing body, this would be more than the parent, teacher and pupil components respectively. This affords them significant sway and is a fundamental departure from the tenets of democratic school governance.
It is envisaged that these facilities will provide “therapeutic programmes” and “intervention strategies”, in addition to curriculum delivery to pupils found guilty of serious misconduct, for a period of up to 12 months. Thereafter, pupils must be re-admitted to the same public school they attended prior to referral.
There is certainly a need to ensure adequate support for pupils who experience disciplinary issues at schools, as well as their teachers. This is undoubtedly challenging, particularly in resource-constrained environments.
We have sympathy then for attempts at striking a balance between the interests of individual pupils with behavioural or disciplinary difficulties, their classmates and their teachers. But the the introduction of “intervention facilities” in the vague manner proposed in this Bill fails to strike the balance.
As currently formulated, the proposed amendment is unclear about whether the primary purpose of the intervention facilities will be to offer therapeutic programmes for learners with behavioural difficulties, or whether the primary purpose will be education and training.
This is significant because the proposed provisions are very broad: a pupil may be referred for any range of “serious misconduct”.
There is established research cautioning against punitive and exclusionary disciplinary measures. Interventions that segregate pupils with poor disciplinary histories have been linked to worse behavioural outcomes. Concerningly the Bill fails to clarify whether the guiding principles of the facilities will be punitive or supportive.
Western Cape School Evaluation Authority
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. The MEC also has full discretion to hire and fire the head of this body.
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.
EE is not opposed to accountability measures in schools. However, we recognise that forms of accountability that burden teachers with excessive record keeping without providing sufficient support or opportunities for monitoring to meaningfully inform teaching practice, may end up merely being performative exercises. This may not only to lead to wasting time and resources, but can also be harmful to the teaching practice. We are concerned that the rationale espoused by the WCED is similar to other interventions that have had these effects.
EE proposes that, rather than introducing additional monitoring and evaluation structures, the focus of reform initiatives should be to strengthen districts’ supportive role and internal accountability frameworks.
For further comment
Roné McFarlane (EE Co-Head of Research): firstname.lastname@example.org
Noncedo Madubedube (EE General Secretary): email@example.com