Opinion piece by Hayley Gibbons
The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Mr Panyaza Lesufi, closed down 20 illegally-operating schools, two days ago, in one fell swoop. He immediately found place for the children in surrounding legal schools. Yes, it is possible and quite likely that those classes are already crowded, even before receiving these new learners; but the resolve of the MEC leaves one with little doubt as to the considered position of the South African government on illegal schools. And this is a position held by every government around the world. At the end of 2018, the British courts prosecuted their first case of illegal education provision. The accused were running an unregistered “school” which they claimed was only providing “extra lessons” to home-educated children. Unfortunately for them, the judge found that they were actually providing full lessons during school hours and were, in fact, acting in the place of a school. They were fined, given a daily curfew, and the school was closed.
So, how should homeschoolers react to this? Homeschoolers in South Africa find themselves in a difficult position, being used as a shield for other forms of alternative education. Home education is a legal alternative to formal schooling. Any other form of education provision, however, requires institutions which are registered with the State, and which have fulfilled the requirements to be registered. These requirements are determined by MEC’s for Education in the provinces, and include a minimum number of enrolled children, certified teachers and approved curricula. Anyone who opens any sort of school, even if it has 3 children and is run from his home, is guilty of an offence if the Department of Education has not granted him a license to operate. The Eastern Cape’s provincial schools act, for example, states that such a person commits an offence just by establishing an unregistered school. He commits a SECOND offence by admitting a learner to it.
These “cottage schoolers”, together with their sister “tutor centres” – which, unless offering only extra lessons in certain areas to children of compulsory school-going age, are also illegal – believe, despite incidents like Monday’s closures, that they will beat the odds and survive. Yet they are unwilling, in the main, and understandably so, to take their own arguments out of the shadows cast by the age-old behemoth of home education and parental primacy which belongs to constitutions around the globe. Out of the shadows and into the public arena for scrutiny, and to gain support. Why? While home educators boldly campaign, and government officials even more boldly dismantle the cottage school project, 20 schools at a time, how far will moaning in dark corners get them, one wonders? It can only be assumed that the reason is because the end is a given, but this cause is one for which, as a South African politician recently said, its adherents will “lose on principle”, being “men of principle.”
And the principle? Well, it must be: being allowed to choose any form of education the parent deems in his child’s best interests; and that includes a small school of 4 or 5 children, taught by whomever the parent chooses, with whatever curriculum he deems best. Now what compassionate homeschooler could possibly have a gripe with that? What independent-minded mother or father would want to demand that proponents of such an agenda separate themselves from true home educators in terms of representation?
Unfortunately, it is precisely because of that independence of mind that the desire for separate identities arises. Many homeschoolers see a bigger picture. Many recognise, without patronage, the often depressing extent of the responsibility of our government. How many AIDS orphans do we have now? How many child-headed households? Absent parents? Whatever cottage schoolers may believe about education in grand, philosophical towers, it is NO solution to demand a “no-rules” education system in any country, let alone in the developing world where vulnerable thousands could be preyed upon in a myriad of ways, educational and social, by such a system. We also recognise the expected effective monitoring by government, with already strained resources, of the hundreds of little schools which would pop up in perpetuity if the “no-rules” crowd had its way, for what it is: a ridiculous project. There WILL be minimum rules, extending to permissible curricula, assessment, learner numbers and minimum qualifications for educators. What the South African government has set, in those terms, is not unreasonable. And should someone feel that it is, well, what’s your counter-offer?? So far, mostly we hear, “all or nothing.”
What IS unreasonable, is that those wanting some libertarian ideal which can never be achieved, seek to bad-mouth those of us trying to disentangle ourselves, as home educators, from their philosophy and their creeping identity. (I smile wryly, as another of my facebook posts is deleted.) And yet… life goes on, and we must all learn our lessons, adults and children alike. For the former, who may not be able to see bigger pictures, alas, I fear it may be the hard way.