Parental rights are a vital component of our right to religious freedom. Parents’ right to religious freedom includes the right to raise their children according to their own religious beliefs and moral values.
Public school education is a critical sphere where this right is exercised – and where it is in danger of erosion. School governing bodies (SGBs) play a vital role in ensuring that parental views and values are upheld.
The institutional authority of parents:
In line with international law, South African law recognises that parents bear the primary responsibility for the education of their children. This responsibility flows naturally from certain fundamental and inalienable rights that parents have by the simple virtue of being parents. These rights are not given to parents by the State or anyone else – and they may not be taken away.
The 1995 White Paper on Education and Training (an official government policy document) recognises and confirms:
“Parents or guardians have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and have the right to be consulted by the state authorities with respect to the form that education should take and to take part in its governance. Parents have an inalienable right to choose the form of education which is best for their children, particularly in the early years of schooling, whether provided by the state or not, subject to reasonable safeguards which may be required by law. The parents' right to choose includes choice of the language, cultural or religious basis of the child's education, with due regard for the rights of others and the rights of choice of the growing child.”
The South African Schools Act of 1996 is informed by, and aligned with, the Education White Papers. The Act requires that parents make up the majority of members of SGBs. This enables parents to exercise their rights, functions and obligations concerning the education of their children and the governance of their school. The SGB therefore represents the institutional authority of parents in the public school system. You can think of them as the school’s Parliament – they make the rules for everyone.
The origin and important purpose of SGBs:
The SGB came into existence in its current form after 1994, reflecting a fundamental shift in the relationship between the State and parents of school-going children. Whereas the Apartheid government controlled all aspects of public education, democratic South Africa is committed to an educational partnership between the State, parents, and the local school community.
While the State sets the curriculum and the outcomes, provides school buildings and facilities, and pays the teachers, the SGB plays a vital role as the watchman and the gatekeeper of the school, with responsibility for its governance:
The existence of SGBs is a recognition that parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. The State is duty-bound to support and equip (not hinder) SGBs to effectively govern public schools.
The composition and term of SGBs:
The SGB consists of the school principal (ex officio) and elected representatives (parents, teaching and other school staff members, and learners). Members are elected to the SGB by their own constituency. For example, parents elect parents, teachers elect teachers, and learners elect learners.
The South African Schools Act requires that a parent must serve as the SGB chairperson. It also requires that parents always hold the majority membership of SGBs. This ensures that parents (collectively) have the final say in various key aspects of the governance of the school their children attend.
SGBs are elected every three years. The Minister of Basic Education announces the SGB election period by the publication of a notice in the Government Gazette. The last SGB elections were held in March 2021, and the next will be held in March 2024.
The cost of not getting involved:
When parents are not involved in the governance of the school attended by their child, and simply leave it to others, they risk losing control over the kind and quality of education they want their child to receive. They must not be surprised should they learn that their children are being taught things that contradict and undermine their own religious beliefs and moral values. This is why it is vitally importance for parents to actively exercise their inalienable parental rights in the best interest of their children.
Getting involved in school governance:
Parents (and legal guardians) can become involved in the governance of the school attended by their children, by voting in and/or standing as a candidate in the SGB elections. Serving on the SGB is an unpaid position involving extra after-hours responsibility. But it is a vitally important self-sacrificing labour of love.
FOR SA encourages all parents to guard their parental rights fiercely and exercise them diligently.
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is dedicated to protecting and preserving the freedoms and rights that the South African Constitution has granted to the faith community. If you have found this helpful, please consider supporting the work of FOR SA to protect our constitutional right to enjoy the freedom of religion by: