Bureaucracy disease: Distressing plan to centralise control of education in SA

JOHANNESBURG — An amendment Bill proposed for the South African Schools Act is stirring up a hornet’s nest. Government is seeking greater control of schools by, in effect, reducing the powers of governing bodies. The move is sparking concern among experts who worry that over-reaching decisions will be made by careless officials, leaving schools in a weaker position to ensure their own sustainability. It’s a divisive topic and Martin van Staden explores some of the key issues in this piece. – Gareth van Zyl

By Martin van Staden*

Government appears to be intent on centralising the public education system, thereby eliminating educational diversity and innovation. The controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill proposes far-reaching changes to the South African Schools Act. For constitutional principles like democracy, freedom, liberation, empowerment, the Rule of Law and due process to have any meaning, government must walk the talk. It must remain true to these precepts and faithfully implement them. The centralised planning and stifling controls being introduced by the Department of Basic Education amount to a conscious decision to deny South Africans true freedom.

Martin van Staden.
Martin van Staden. 

The Department’s distressing plan is to make the penalty for violations of archaic compulsory schooling laws even harsher, and to empower officials in the education bureaucracy to make decisions that should be left in the hands of school governing bodies. The powers of these bodies are limited to near-irrelevance, with greater authority being given to the heads of provincial education departments. The Bill’s justification for this centralisation of power is weak at best. A free society would move in precisely the opposite direction, to where education policy would be devolved to individual schools, and parents and students would have freedom of choice.

This proposed centralisation is problematic because government officials in the education bureaucracy do not possess the most up-to-date and intimate knowledge concerning the subjects of their regulation: the schools and their pupils. They lack any emotional connection with individual schools that would otherwise spur appropriate and speedy action in response to problems. With centralisation, problems will be responded to too late, or inappropriately. Only school governing bodies understand their respective schools’ circumstances well enough to bring about appropriate and timely rectifications.

The main trouble with government schooling is that it suffers from “bureaucracy disease”, a disease that to a greater or lesser extent afflicts all entities managed by governments, whether their task is to provide schooling, electricity, water, healthcare, mining, roads, or whatever else is designated to be an essential good or service.

The harm caused by bureaucracy disease became patently obvious when observing people with the same backgrounds, levels of education, languages and cultures subjected to high levels of bureaucracy in one territory and relatively low levels of the affliction elsewhere. Examples are East vs West Germany, North vs South Korea, mainland China vs Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Cuba vs the large Cuban community who fled to Florida.

Read also: Education bill stirs up a hornets’ nest – govt extends public comment deadline

These same-country “experiments” reveal similar effects; poor economic results under heavy doses of the bureaucracy disease and better results when the affliction is reduced. West Germany, which had been badly harmed by the fascist bureaucracy, prospered when it unburdened itself after 1945. Britain, which was heavily bureaucratised during World War II, struggled under a heavy dose of the affliction until some relief was effected by the Thatcher government. Most countries are not entirely free of the disease, but the unintentional real life experiments show that less bureaucratically burdened economies far outperform those that are more heavily burdened.

The reinforcement of compulsory schooling in the Bill is also problematic. “The pursuit of knowledge and understanding requires above all, an environment that is free of such ancient and discredited instruments”, writes Eustace Davie in Unchain the Child (2005). He argues that compulsory schooling is not about ensuring “children receive an adequate education, but to ensure that they receive the kind of education prescribed by the educational bureaucracy”. This is clear because these laws apply to all children – including those educated outside the formal education system.

The Bill, finally, falls foul of section 29(3) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to establish independent educational institutions as long as there is no discrimination based on race, and their standards are the same as or superior to those of equivalent public institutions. For government to introduce additional criteria making it more onerous for independent institutions to be established renders these constitutional provisions redundant. The Bill gives heads of department the authority to decide, according to their own whim, what is and is not in the “best interests” of home-schooled learners. This violates the section 1(c) constitutional requirement that discretionary powers be circumscribed and not absolute (and consequently arbitrary).

Rather than centralisation, there needs to be more decentralisation with more power being vested in individual school governing bodies. Provincial education departments and the national education department should only serve to provide oversight and support structures for individual schools, which must be left to innovate and cater to the particular circumstances in which they find themselves. Home education and independent education more broadly must be regulated only insofar as the Constitution requires. These institutions have been very successful over recent years and should not be interfered with.

The FMF’s submission on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill can be read here.

  • Martin van Staden is a lawyer working as the Legal Researcher for the Free Market Foundation; he is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria. He has served on the African Executive Board of Students For Liberty since 2015 and is currently its Academic Programmes Director for Southern Africa. Being a passionate writer, he is a Young Voices Advocate and the Editor in Chief of two online classical liberal publications, Being Libertarian and Rational Standard. Martin co-authored an FMF monograph on South African telecommunications policy, The Real Digital Divide, and was a contributor to and editor of the Rational Standard book, Fallism: One Year of Rational Commentary. He has been interviewed on television and radio about public policy, law, and economics in South Africa.
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