And never the twain shall meet

Homeschoolers in South Africa are currently experiencing another policy review process on home education. This summary lifts out the most important policy initiatives with respect to home education since 1994 and before. It shows that there have been several such initiatives. At each one, much was made of “consulting” the “stakeholders’, and homeschoolers in particular.

At each one, it however transpired that the policy makers have no intention at all to give effect to the unique qualities of home education as an educational practice. Instead, the unwavering objective is to bring home education “into conformance” with the formal school system.

In spite of the negative legal environment the Lord has enabled thousands of homeschoolers in the recent decades to educate their children at home, and we praise Him for that. May He also help and protect the Trust and the home schooling community in future to ensure that our children and grandchildren may still be able to home school in peace.

Homeschoolers and the education authorities

Immediately before 1994

A few families were allowed to homeschool under severe restrictions, if they could have their children exempted from compulsory school attendance. That was only granted up to Grade 3, if the family lived more than 80 km from the nearest school and if the child(ren) were taught by a teacher qualified to teach the junior primary phase.

A few other families homeschooled their children illegally. Some of these were prosecuted and given suspended jail sentences. André and Bokkie Meintjes chose to go to jail in Desember 1993 rather than to voluntarily hand the children to the state education system. They were released under the general amnesty a few months after the new constitution came into effect.

Since the constitutional change

Since the constitutional change in South Africa, there have been three major policy initiatives on home education.

  • Adoption of the SA Schools Act

The first initiative was the drafting of the SA Schools Act, starting in 1995. Originally, there was no provision for home education, and the small number of home educators were not taken seriously. However, when thousands of American homeschoolers wrote to the SA ambassador in Washington, the government’s attitude changed.

At that time, SA was still expecting to receive large grants from America, and American public opinion was taken seriously. Home education was provided for in the final version of the SA Schools Act. It was only a few years later that Mr Mandela lamented that SA had “got only peanuts from the Americans”.

By that time, however, the law had been passed. The act requires that every home learner be registered with the relevant provincial education department – unless there is good reason not to.

NOTE: It is not the SA Schools Act that makes home education “legal” in South Africa. The Constitution necessarily implies that every person has the right to choose home education for himself or his children. (The SA Schools Act in fact restricts the freedom of home education.) However, explicit provision for home education was needed in the early days to prove to officials, parents and the public that it was “legal”.

  • Policy on the registration of home learners 1999

The second event was Mr Kader Asmal’s policy initiative in 1999. Homeschoolers were “consulted” about the proposed policy because the law requires it. However, almost no attention was paid to the homeschoolers’ inputs in the process. The result was the policy on the registration of learners for education at home, that was promulgated on 23rd November 1999.

The policy of 1999 constitutes one of the most intrusive and restrictive policy documents on home education in the world. Indeed, the Pestalozzi Trust wrote to the minister to inform him that the result of this policy would be that the policy on home education would be formulated in the courts and not in the minister’s department. Fortunately, the Constitutional Court ruled in 2001 in the case of Harris that no policy promulgated in terms of the legal provision under which this policy was promulgated constitutes a law and neither could such policies be enforced.

The judgment of the Constitutional Court did not deter education officials. For the next fifteen years, they continued to claim that the 1999 policy was “the law” on home education. In doing so, they were in contempt of court, and homeschoolers rightly refused to register their children with the education departments. (By 2014, according to the official figures, 98% of the home learners in the country were not registered with any education department.)

During the years 1999 to 2016 there was only one attempt to prosecute homeschoolers. In February 2000, the Villieria police, with Beeld in tow, tried to arrest Doddie Kleynhans, a poor and sickly mother of nine, who was homeschooling her two youngest children. They were not registered with the provincial education department as required by the SA Schools Act.

The Pestalozzi Trust’s lawyer made representations to the public prosecutors, who dropped the case. It seems as if the authorities realised that their laws and policies would not survive a challenge in court, and over the following years the Pestalozzi Trust was able to head off all further attempts to prosecute homeschoolers.

  • Review of law and policy – 2005 onwards

In 2005 the Department of Basic Education (DBE) advertised for tenders for research on home education in South Africa. The budget was small and the terms of reference very restrictive. A tender by Wits Education Policy Unit was accepted, and they submitted their report in 2008. Given the restrictions on the researchers, the report was successful in describing the homeschooling community as it then was, and its recommendations were mostly reasonable.

From 2009 to 2013 the annual reports of the DBE consistently referred to a process that was under way to review the law and policy on home education. The stated aim of the review was to satisfy the desire of the education minister to bring home education in conformance with “the formal education system”. The particulars of the “process” was, however, kept very secret from homeschoolers.

The current review process

In August 2014 about a dozen representatives of homeschooling assocations from around the country were invited to attend “consultations”, scheduled for October, with the eleven education departments on the review of the laws and policy on home education.

  • A draft discussion document

The “draft discussion document” which was to be discussed was only made available a week before the two-day meeting. Homeschoolers were, therefore, given one week to respond to a document that had taken the departments seven years to prepare. The document reflected in all respects the desire to force home education into conformance with “the formal system”.

In addition to being provided at such short notice before the meeting, the discussion document was completely unacceptable to the representatives of homeschooling associations. Among the many ways in which it would subvert home education, it proposed to require all home learners to be registered with “accredited” curriculum providers, who would “monitor” the home education on behalf of the state.

  • Homeschoolers present their case

Consequently, the homeschoolers did not respond to the discussion document at all. Instead, they used the two days at their disposal to educate the departmental officials on all the important aspects of home education. They made it clear that few homeschoolers would comply with a prescribed curriculum (which is unconstitutional) and stated that homeschoolers were strongly opposed to compulsory assessments.

From the presentations of homeschoolers, it was abundantly clear that the proposed policies simply would not fly. Indeed, Dr Trevor Coombe said on behalf of the departments that they would have to go back to the drawing board. Another two-day meeting was scheduled for January 2015.

  • Postponements

The January meeting was postponed to February. Then the February meeting was postponed indefinitely. Finally, the next meeting took place in July 2015. At this meeting, a new draft discussion document was presented by Dr Trevor Coombe, on behalf of the departments.

This document differed from the previous one as night differs from day. It demonstrated a thorough understanding of what homeschoolers had been saying at the first consultation meeting. What is more, it accepted that the concerns of homeschoolers had merit and concluded that much research needed to be done before policy could be finalized. It is fair to say that this second discussion document ranks with the most enlightened policy documents on home education in the world.

The one jarring note was a comment from the chairman of the meeting, Dr Simelane, to the effect that children are wards of the state. This is quite untrue. Children can only become “wards of the state” upon an order of a competent court if the child has no caregivers, or if the parents are proven to be unfit. In all other cases children are the wards of their parents or guardians. Simelane had made similar comments at the previous meeting.

This version of the discussion document was the first sign in all the years of any attempt by officialdom to understand the pedagogical nature of home education.

It soon transpired that it would also probably be the last.

This discussion document gave homeschoolers the hope that an era of mutual trust between policy makers and homeschoolers might follow – but the hope was soon dashed.

  • Homeschoolers no longer “consulted”, but becoming co-opted

After the two “consultation” sessions, spread over two years, following a seven-year preparation, the Department of Basic Education suddenly became hurried, and commenced a process of writing the revised policy.

Three homeschoolers were invited, in their personal capacities, to form part of the working group of about thirty people that was put together for this task. The great majority of participants were departmental officials, but there were also representatives from Umalusi, ISASA (Independent Schools Association of SA, (which had never demonstrated any interest in home education before), Impak, as well as Mrs Sophie Breytenbach, a very experienced teacher, who had homeschooled her grandchildren. She propagates unquestioning adherence to the demands and desires of education officials, irrespective of whether they are consistent with the law or not. (Significantly, after some years of the kind of home education provided by this lady, the grandchildren were placed in schools at their own request.)

The working group was scheduled to meet every month from October to March. The first meeting was attended by Leendert van Oostrum and Joy Leavesley, the two homeschoolers from Gauteng who had been invited. Bouwe van der Eems, the third invitee, was unable to travel from Cape Town at such short notice.

From the start of the first working group meeting in October, it was made abundantly clear that a different dynamic was at work. During his opening remarks, for example, the chairman (the same Dr Simelane) claimed that “children belong to the state”. He proceeded to make it clear that those present were not there to represent their own stakeholder groups or their families – they represented no-one except the Department of Basic Education.

  • Homeschooling representatives withdraw from the working group

This development made the two homeschoolers very uneasy. Very soon, it became obvious that the policy to be written would not follow the recommendations of the last discussion document of July 2015, which had been very positive for home education. Instead, the discussions were aimed at implementing the original objective of the education minister – to bring home education in conformance with “the formal education system”. Clearly, the original discussion document presented in 2014 was the “real” objective.

There were a few dissenting noises, including from some officials such as Mr Louw from the Western Cape. However, all dissent was soon drowned in the noise of officialdom on the march towards the only thing they know – pouring home education into the mould of state education.

It was as if the four days of extensive presentations by homeschoolers and intensive discussions on all aspects of home education had never happened. It became apparent to the two homeschoolers present that they were there only so that their names could be listed in the final policy proposal as “members of the working group”, giving the impression that homeschoolers were in support of the final proposals.

Accordingly, by late morning, the two homeschoolers asked for a recession to consult with each other. They agreed that they could not be part of the working group as if they were employed by the Department of Basic Education. Accordingly, they informed the chairman that they were no longer available as members of the working group, but would remain available as “resource persons” whenever required. Shortly after they left, the meeting was adjourned. And they were never asked to make any inputs in the capacity of resource persons.

  • Keeping a foot in the door

Only one of the three homeschoolers who had been invited to serve on the working groups had not withdrawn – Bouwe van der Eems from Cape Town, who did not attend the first work group meeting. He was also unable to travel to Pretoria for the second meeting in November. Karin van Oostrum, another trustee of the Pestalozzi Trust, agreed to represent Bouwe at the November meeting, and she did.

Karin’s impressions of the second meeting were the same as those of the two who had withdrawn during the first meeting: It was as if the officials had not heard the many hours of presentations and deliberations of the previous year. At this, the second work group meeting, they were still arguing about what home education is. Karin also made some sensible comments and contributions, but it was like trying to drink from a fire hose – the officials simply continued to work towards the only thing they know – the state school system.

A very useful outcome of this meeting, was that the department’s proposed amendments to the SA Schools Act were provided at the meeting. They simply confirmed the impression that the minister intends to force home education into the mould of the state schools.

Despite knowing that she could not make any difference to the outcome, Karin agreed to attend the next meeting as well. At least it meant that she would receive the minutes of the meetings and any working documents being circulated.

The meeting scheduled for December was cancelled, and the next meeting was due late in January. Two days before the January meeting, Karin received the updated policy proposals, as well as the suggested amendments to the law.

  • The last homeschooling representative withdraws

Upon seeing the updated policy proposals, Karin informed the convenor of the working group that she would not attend further meetings of the working group.

She informed the convenor that the model of home education being proposed was very far from the reality of home education in South Africa and other countries. The model is predicated on education as the act of teaching, whereas home education almost always aims to optimise learning and must therefore be flexible, adaptable and innovative.

She was of the opinion that a policy such as the one being contemplated is unlikely to be accepted by home educating families and will probably lead to more families finding themselves unable to register their children as home learners.

Although she was grateful for the many hours that the officials had spent listening to our presentations, she felt that we clearly have not yet been successful in informing the policy drafters of home education as a sound, valid and very successful pedagogical practice.

She also expressed the conviction that the document being contemplated will not inspire confidence that education officials understand enough about home education to be able to support or monitor home education.

  • Back to square one

The draft was due to be finalised at the work group meeting of 29th January, for presentation to the Executive Council of the Department in February. That means that the last bona fide homeschoolers withdrew from the process only when it was clear that there was no realistic expectation of being able to change the direction in which the policy development was going.

Indeed, it became clear that, just as in 1999, homeschoolers were ostensibly “consulted” (at great cost and effort on all sides) only to be ignored. The original intention of the minister, to bring home education in conformance with “the formal education system” evidently remained the objective all along.

  • What happens now?

All homeschoolers will now have the opportunity to contribute to the debate when the laws and regulations are published for public comment. There will be plenty of opportunity for every homeschooler to make written submissions and to discuss the proposals with their elected representatives at national and provincial level.

The indications are, however, that the eventual laws and regulations will be unreasonable, contrary to the best interests of children and unconstitutional, and therefore invalid. It is likely that most homeschoolers will, as they do now, conclude that registration with the education departments is contrary to the best interests of their children.

In that event, the Pestalozzi Trust will have to defend its members when they are prosecuted for refusing to comply with such invalid laws.

So, nothing will have changed!

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