By Nomali Cele
There are probably few things scarier to a child than being told to go to the principal’s office. Regardless of how long or short that walk, the shame and fear of the unknown are excruciating. And if parents hesitate to communicate with the school, this is probably the road their child will have to walk when school fees are outstanding.
When sending a child to school, parents enter into a relationship with the school that the child shouldn’t have to mediate. In the instance that the school is a fee-paying school, parents also enter into a financial agreement with the school, which they have to maintain. Hard financial times are hard to avoid but your child’s education shouldn’t suffer because of them. And more importantly, your child shouldn’t have to answer questions in the administration building of ferry late payment notices home. Go to the school as early as possible.
So what are your child’s rights when you haven’t paid their school fees?
Public and private schools have different rules and therefore different needs when it comes to the money owed to them. Effectively, private schools depend primarily on school fees to meet their financial obligations. Some schools are lucky to receive regular donations from prominent parents or members of the community but that money is usually put into special projects, with school fees still expected to cover the running costs of the school.
Public schools, on the other hand, receive funding from the government. And when the South African constitution refers to aright to basic education, public and government-funded schools are the
Children in public school
Despite past conduct from some public schools, children in public schools have more leeway when it comes to outstanding or unpaid fees. It’s your child’s right to receive basic education and public schools are not allowed to bar learners who haven’t paid their school fees from attending classes or from receiving their results.
It is still important for parents to inform the school and make payment arrangements. This dialogue with the school (depending on why school fees are unpaid or late) can open up another conversation – school fees exemption.
Children in private school
When you sign admission documents for your child, you’re entering into a contractual agreement with the school. This means the school had a legal foot to stand on and can end up claiming against your assets for outstanding school fees.
Unlike in public schools, private schools operate with different rules and expectations and are within their rights to withhold their services when you, the parent, default or payments.
In an op-ed in Sunday Tribune Lebogang Montjane, the Executive Director of the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa), wrote “o school excludes a learner as a first resort. It is, invariably, a desperate last act. Often exhaustive efforts are made to contact a parent and communicate with them as to the precise nature of the debt and consequences of non-payment.”
How school fees exemption works
Primarily, schools should automatically exempt orphans (especially those from child-headed homes) and children living with foster parents from paying fees. If your child attends a fee-paying school but your financial situation has changed thus making the school fees unaffordable, you are within your rights to approach the school for school fees exemption, which is likely to be a partial or conditional exemption. Both these exemptions are likely to stipulate that you have to keep the school updated or your financial situation so it gives them a timeline for when they can expect you to start paying fees again.
In your application, which goes to the school governing body (SGB), you have to provide support documents – such as payslips and expenses – to show that due to your current financial situation, school fees are hard to pay. The SGB will then deliberate and come back with a decision in under 30 days. If their decision isn’t what you’d hoped for, you are able to appeal the decision.
Your child’s biggest right in this situation is to continue going to school and it’s your duty as a parent to ensure it happens. This means getting in touch with the school at the beginning of your financial problems. It means making the sometimes hard decision to move your child to another school where the school fees are within your budget or they don’t have to pay boarding fees or they are closer to home so you are not paying a lot for transport.