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The DA has urged the government to reconsider its plans to strip school governing bodies’ powers to determine their own admission and language policies, among the most controversial proposals contained in the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill, now before parliament.

The bill proposes giving provincial education department heads the final say on language and admission policies, extends the start of compulsory schooling from Grade 1 to Grade R, and opens the way for schools to sell alcohol for consumption on their premises and at school events. It also criminalises parents who do not send their children to school, with penalties that include fines and up to a year in jail, and tightens oversight of home schooling.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on basic education called for public comment on the bill on May 15, giving the public until June 15 to make submissions. It is then expected to hold public hearings in all nine provinces, followed by oral submissions in parliament. The bill proposes amendments to the SA Schools Act and the Employment of Educators Act.

The DA said the bill would significantly change the education landscape and be detrimental to mother-tongue education “for decades to come”.

“DA calls on the public to stop this destructive Bill in its tracks,” DA shadow minister of basic education Baxolile Nodada said a statement released on Monday. “It is of crucial importance that the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education receive as many submissions as possible highlighting the problematic clauses of the Bela Bill, including the clauses that seek to remove the power to determine admissions and language policies from school governing bodies, while also curtailing the local communities’ ability to oppose the policy changes,” he said.

“The DA is also concerned about this specific public participation process, which disadvantaged speakers of indigenous languages. While English calls for comment were published in a national paper, calls for comment in the other official languages were only published in regional papers and those speakers were not given the same amount of time to submit their comments.”

The language and admission policies in the bill have also run into opposition from lobby group AfriForum and trade union Solidarity, which previously said they feared the bill would deprive current Afrikaans speakers of their constitutional right to education in a language of their choice. The bill proposes giving provincial heads of education the power to direct a school to adopt more than one language of instruction in certain circumstances. AfriForum said last month that its petition against the bill had attracted more than 10 000 signatories.

The department of basic education’s proposal to make Grade R compulsory next year was laudable, but impractical as schools were unprepared for the influx of extra learners, said the DA.

More than 13 000 people had signed its petition opposing the bill, said the DA.

The bill is also being opposed by the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA), a network of civil society organisations, which wants the government to scrap provisions allowing alcohol on school premises and at school events. It has called for a complete ban on alcohol in schools, except for personal use by staff who live on the premises.

Home educators have expressed unhappiness about the provisions in the bill that require parents to obtain permission from the provincial head of education to educate their children at home and require parents to arrange annual external assessments of their children’s progress until they are 15.

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