Online education was a lifeline that saved many learners’ school year during COVID. After seeing the benefits of online education, a number of KZN families decided to begin home schooling. However, families experienced a nasty shock when late last year, the KZN Department of Education (KZNDoE) started turning down these families’ applications for home education. A trickle of refusals has turned into a flood, and despite appeals, with the end of the school year looming, desperate KZN families are finally turning to the courts for assistance.
School closures during COVID meant that almost every family in the country was exposed to home schooling. While many learners and parents couldn’t wait for schools to reopen, other families found that home schooling and, in particular online schooling worked for them. At the same time, the online schooling sector grew dramatically with a number of new online schools opening as well as many more parents becoming aware of online schooling.
In late 2021 parents in KZN started having their applications for registration for home education turned down by the KZNDoE. By the first quarter of 2022, this trickle had become a flood, with the education officials appearing to take the view that if a family used an online school, their application for homeschooling would be declined.
Desperate KZN families then turned to the Pestalozzi Trust, a civil rights organisation that defends the right to education, to assist. “As we are best known as advocates for the rights of home schoolers, the Trust was approached by distressed parents from KZN who were very worried that their applications for registration for home education had been turned down. In the more than twenty years of the Trust’s existence, this was the largest number of refusals from a single province,” says Karin van Oostrum, CEO of the Trust. “Parents couldn’t understand why they were being turned down, as other provinces were approving applications for home education even if parents used online schools. Even more confusing was that parents who had had their applications approved by KZN in the past were now being refused,” she adds.
Although ‘online schooling’ has been used for some years in the home education environment, it is a relatively new phenomenon in mainstream education. The national Department of Basic Education (DBE) has been developing a framework to regulate the online sector. Van Oostrum explains. “When we met with the KZNDoE, they stated that they were rejecting applications until the new framework is approved.”
“Home educators have been using digital education platforms for decades with big success, and the DBE has never seen the need to regulate it, despite repeated requests. Now that this form of education has grown significantly, government suddenly wants to regulate it and expects home educators to stop using these platforms until regulations have been completed,” says Bouwe van der Eems, Chairperson of the Pestalozzi Trust. “What is even more concerning is that the DBE is now hastily drafting a framework without formally acknowledged consultative bodies that involve relevant stakeholders. Fortunately, the Pestalozzi Trust was given the opportunity to provide its inputs on the framework.”
The Pestalozzi Trust has assisted families to appeal the decision to reject their application to the MEC for Education. These appeals have been sitting on the MEC’s desk for months, and despite pleas and lawyer’s letters, they have not been responded to.
According to Karin van Oostrum, “The Trust is concerned because the end of the school year is near. Home schoolers across the province are worried because even those who are using approaches that are not online are now being refused registration. The Trust has now had to take legal action on behalf of parents to compel the MEC to respond to these appeals”.
Van der Eems says, “We are hoping the KZN MEC will perform her duty to register learners for home education and not reject applications without valid reasons. We would also like to see the KZNDoE placing no restrictions on the type of curriculum or approaches used in home schooling. For the long term, the DBE and the provinces must first establish relevant consultative bodies to develop a regulatory framework for education that makes provision for online schools and many other emerging education modalities, to empower parents to choose from a diversity of options what is best for their children.”
The matter is set down in the High Court on 6 December 2022.