SOUTH AFRICA: Controversial education bill raises temperatures

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 20 12:41:33 UTC 2005

SOUTH AFRICA: Controversial education bill raises temperatures
19 May 2005 17:46:18 GMT

Source: IRIN

JOHANNESBURG, 19 May (IRIN) - An ambitious government plan to shake up
education in South Africa has set off a heated public debate, with some
academics and opposition groups arguing the proposals will destroy the
public school system. Authorities have pointed out that the series of
tough measures, which would transform how South African children are
taught, are part of a broader effort aimed at addressing past inequalities
in the education system. The proposed changes, set out in the Education
Laws Amendment Bill, include clipping the powers of school governing
bodies, some of which are accused of framing policies which discriminate
against the hiring of black teachers.

"These bodies tend to be very selective in opening the door to some, and
keeping it closed to others," Minister of Education Naledi Pandor said
during the parliamentary debate on her department's budget on Tuesday. At
present, governing bodies have the power to decide on admission policies,
determine the language of instruction, set school fees and appoint
teachers independently of government. In future, schools would present the
provincial education department head with a shortlist of three teachers
who meet the criteria, and the official would make the final decision.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party has slammed the
proposed amendments, describing them as the "most profound betrayal of
quality in public schooling since 1994". "This bill undermines the right
of governing bodies to recommend teachers for posts, giving that power to
the provincial head of department, on criteria that have nothing to do
with teaching excellence," DA MP Helen Zille said in a strongly worded
statement this week. Despite the opposition, government has vowed to push
ahead with its proposed changes. As part of the effort to expand enrolment
in poorer areas, the minister will have the power to decide whether a
school can charge school fees or not.

In some cases pupils struggle to pay yearly fees as low as R100 (US $15)
or even less, the authorities have pointed out. However, the most
controversial aspect of the bill is the pending introduction of a new
curriculum making English and Afrikaans optional, and offering learners
the choice of studying any two of the country's 11 official languages. The
proposed system is in line with the government's plan to have universities
teach in indigenous languages, as suggested in a ministerial report handed
to Pandor earlier this year.

The education ministry has gone to great pains to explain that the policy
was not intended to sideline English or Afrikaans, but to broaden the
opportunities for developing the other nine official languages into
mediums of instruction. Before 1998 only Afrikaans and English were used
as mediums of instruction, giving an advantage to pupils in search of a
matric pass for whom these were home languages. While some English
academics have criticised the language policy, others said that allowing
for a choice of languages was in line with South Africa's constitution.

There have also been concerns that black children who opt for languages
other than English or Afrikaans would be further disadvantaged in the
future. Professor Jean-Philippe Wade, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's
department of cultural and media studies, was quoted by the Sunday Times
newspaper as saying, "As it stands, the level of teaching English at
schools is absolutely appalling - it [the proposed changes] draws
attention away from improving the teaching of English."

Professor Ray Basson from the education department of the University of
the Witwatersrand told IRIN that although the government's efforts were
commendable, greater effort was needed to beef up language training for
teachers. Moreover, implementing the new language policy would mean having
available a steady supply of support materials, such as textbooks. "There
has been quite an uproar over the language issue, especially given South
Africa's past history, but research has shown that even after being given
the option of indigenous languages, black school children have tended to
lean towards choosing English as a matric subject. Their parents are also
very aware of the long-term benefits of opting for English,"  Basson
pointed out.

John Lewis, a spokesman for the South African Democratic Teachers Union,
agreed that "it was about time that indigenous languages were given
importance", but maintained that the new policy would only be effective if
the government committed serious funding to teacher training and
educational support.

Educations officials have, however, assured the public that the
introduction of a new curriculum will occur in a "phased" manner.

"The inadequate levels of preparedness that were identified in [a recent]
readiness review have led us to develop detailed plans and actions that
allow for a smooth transition to the new curriculum," Pandor was quoted as

According to official statistics, isiZulu is the mother tongue of 23.8
percent of the population, followed by isiXhosa (17.6 percent) and Sepedi.
Although English is the language most used in public services, commerce,
industry and academia, just eight percent of South Africa's 48 million
people speak it as their mother tongue.

Language has always been a sensitive subject in South Africa. The Soweto
uprising in the 1970s, arguably a key turning point in the country's
resistance movement, was ignited by the apartheid government's edict that
Afrikaans would be the main teaching medium.

More than a decade after watershed democratic elections in 1994, education
remains at the heart of social reform and, at 25 percent, the country's
largest budget item.

The government has moved to telescope 36 higher education institutions,
previously based on race and speciality, into 21 open centres of higher

Access to public schools has also increased, with 95.5 percent of the
student population attending primary school and 85 percent attending
secondary school.

Observers say this progress has been achieved because the government has
been unafraid to ruffle feathers in its pursuit of education

The education ministry recently criticised tertiary institutions for
focusing on claiming funding from government without making enough effort
to ensure that students passed.

South Africa spent R1.5 billion ($250 million) a year - about half of the
state's higher education subsidy - on students who dropped out, the
department noted.

Pandor said universities should manage their admission criteria better,
put more into bridging programmes, and emphasise courses that meet the
economy's needs.

Colleen Howell, an education researcher at the University of the Western
Cape, said reforming education in South Africa was pivotal to tackling
racial inequalities and building capacity among previously disadvantaged

 1998-2001 Reuters Limited.

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