Schools closed almost two months ago with the Covid-19 lockdown and many parents are now questioning why they should be paying for services not rendered. Yet the Department of Basic Education, legal experts and the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (Isasa) say parents must continue paying school fees – or make arrangements with schools.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, speaking last week on the sector’s recovery plans for schools’ re-opening, addressed the fees issue, saying the Council of Education Ministers had taken note of concerns.
“We indicated from the start that school fees are payable, where the children attend fee-paying schools,” she said.
“We received reports that in some schools parents did not pay fees, and this has affected the salaries of governing body-appointed teachers. It was agreed that provinces would look into the matter, to find an amicable but implementable solution. In the meantime, we urge all parents to continue paying school fees. If you cannot pay, because your circumstances have changed as a result of Covid-19, please approach the school and communicate your challenges with them.”
On the situation at private schools, Isasa, which represents more than 850 schools, agreed, saying schools’ fixed costs were significant.
Lebogang Montjane, Isasa’s executive director, said it had discouraged its members from giving significant fees discounts, because the schools must remain viable.
“Many people don’t realise staff salaries alone comprise between 70% and 90% of a school’s fixed costs,” he said.
“It’s a really tough time for our country, so we have huge sympathy for our parents, with many of them having lost their jobs, being forced to take pay cuts, or being unable to reopen their businesses.
“We encourage parents to reach out to the schools and make payment arrangements,” Montjane said.
Noting an increase in pressure on parents and teachers from e-learning, data costs, job losses, childcare and other family responsibilities, he said the pandemic had placed significant constraints on the broader school community. In some cases, less financially sound schools might never reopen.
Werksmans Attorneys director Bulelwa Mabasa said her firm had been approached by schools for advice on how to deal with non-payment of fees.
“A lot of parents are going to be economically impacted,” Mabasa said. “This situation will require some flexibility from the schools, which might mean longer payment terms.”
She said parents’ circumstances needed to be taken into account. “Some might be selling personal protective equipment, for example, and doing really well right now. Some have had to take big pay cuts. Others have lost their jobs. This requires flexibility and understanding. It’s tough for parents too – your days are likely to be harder if you still have your day job and you can’t leave your kids to their own devices.”
In an article titled “Fees must fall? The impact of the lockdown on school fees”, which was reviewed by Mabasa, Werksmans candidate attorney Thomas Karberg said public schools had a duty to provide basic education in terms of the constitution. As such, the Schools Act prohibits schools from refusing admission or expelling pupils due to non-payment as it deprives them of their rights.
“In terms of section 40 of the act, parents of learners in public schools are liable for school fees, but can be exempted from the payment … (if) they are unable to pay. Depending on whether a parent has suffered a reduction in salary or has become unemployed, the exemption may be partial or full.”
He said parents who lost their jobs due to the lockdown should apply to the school governing body for exemption from fees. “Nevertheless, parents have been urged by various stakeholders to continue paying school fees to cover the salaries of teachers appointed by governing bodies.”
Private schools, though, have contracts with parents, so they have more extensive remedies at their disposal to enforce fee payment and they have the right to terminate their contractual relationships in the event of a material breach, thereby preventing pupils from returning to a school.
But, when these schools enforce those rights in recovering arrears or want to exclude pupils, they must remain cognisant of the children’s best interests, Karberg said.
By Martin Hesse