Falling behind on school fees is a fear that many parents face, and with well over half of South African families headed by single mothers, it's a scary reality for these women who raise kids, work and handle it all alone.
Nonetheless, try as they might sometimes the ends just don't meet and they have to miss a payment here and there. Schools are obliged to assist and to understand in these cases, and the law makes allowances for parents who need school fee subsidies.
No matter how far behind a parent is on fees though, the school cannot withhold a report or bar the student from writing exams. So it is distressing to receive questions like this one below from worried mothers.
Single mom Sinesipho* wrote to Parent24 for advice on this troublesome topic.
My children have been excluded from exams because of outstanding fees. They go to a private school in a suburb outside of Joburg. Their report cards have also been withheld since the beginning of the year.
I am a single parent currently going through financial struggles. Their father passed away and their family from the father's side doesn't assist with anything.
It's hard to go to the school and explain the situation because the teachers can be very rude and embarrass you in front of children and you walk out of the class in shame. I know that as a parent it's my responsibility to make sure the fees are paid, but as a single parent it's sometimes very hard to make ends meet.
The school should rather deal with me directly instead of embarrassing my children and causing them emotional stress on the time of exams.
The school is really not considering the children's rights to education. They are violating those rights. Worse even as a parent when you try and discuss the matter with the SGB you get embarrassed and in front of children.
I would like to know if the law allows schools to exempt children from final exams because of fees, and to also with-hold reports?
The National Credit Act
We asked Sue Larkan of Tabansi to advise her, and we're sharing her feedback here so other parents in the same situation can know their rights, and how to proceed.
It would appear that there are differences between the rules that apply to government schools and private schools.
If the school is a private one and "the fees are in arrears for many months, then yes, the school can refuse further tuition," she told us, "as they are business run, therefore their fees are regulated by the National Credit Act."
But, she adds, they should have consulted with the parent and given assistance to transfer the children to more affordable schools like a public school, where the parent would be able to apply for exemption or reduction in fees.
"At this late stage of the year, when the school has permitted the child to remain at the school to date, the school should not disallow the child to write his or her exams. They can refuse to re-register the child for the new year," she explains.
No one is obliged to remain at a private school
In 2018, the father of a private primary school pupil, who was prevented from writing exams because of unpaid school fees, challenged the constitutionality of this policy. His lawyers argued that "Independent schools can sue parents for fees, rather than victimise and humiliate learners."
In response, the Durban school countered that the parents elected to have the child educated at a private school and undertook contractually to pay the fees, and accepted the consequences of failure to do so, adding that "No one is obliged to remain at a private school."
High court Judge Mokgere Masipa ruled in the father's favour, saying that private schools cannot stop children from writing exams because of unpaid fees without following fair procedure.
This included taking into account the rights of children, who she said should not be punished for "the sins of their fathers", adding that the Constitution required private schools to act in a manner which does not harm a learner’s right to basic education.
“While a school has a right to exclude a learner who, for example, has contravened the code of conduct, or where fees are owed, this can only be implemented after following fair procedure and taking into account the best interests of the child,” she said.
What this means for future issues like this, at the 760 private schools in South Africa, remains to be seen.
For more information on this subject, see here:
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