“The school sold my lounge suite, microwave and fridge… it’s now threatening to sell my house too”. The household items of the parent who phoned the Equal Education Law Centre earlier this year had just been confiscated by debt collectors seeking to settle a R25,000 outstanding payment for school fees.
When her child was admitted to the school, the parent ran a spaza shop and was making enough money to afford the payment of school fees. Her financial situation changed drastically after her store caught fire and she lost everything. From then on, as a single parent, she had no income other than the child support grant. For two years she could not afford to pay fees.
During this period, she received phone calls from the school demanding payment and threatening to attach her property. She was never told that she had the right to apply for a fee exemption, to which she would have been entitled.
Fearing that the child would be excluded, the parent did not inform the school about her changed financial situation. Towards the end of the year, the school made good its threats, attached some of her household items and sold them to settle her debt.
The legal framework
Schools do have a right to enforce school fees. Parents also have a right to apply for a fee exemption. For this reason, the South African School Act sets out the procedure which schools are obliged to follow before exercising their right to enforce payment of fees against defaulting parents.
Before taking action against a defaulting parent, a school must find out whether the parent qualifies for fee exemption. If so, the school must exempt the parent. Further, in order to take action against a defaulting parent, the school must have written proof that the parent was notified of his/her right to apply for a fee exemption and failed to do so. These provisions seek to harmonise and balance the competing rights of the school to enforce payment and of a parent to be exempted from payment of fees if he or she qualifies.
Lack of accountability
In the case of our client, due to lack of knowledge and the school’s failure to provide the relevant information, she had not applied for a fee exemption and was faced with having to hand over her home in order to ensure that her child had access to education.
This is not the only case of this sort which has been brought to the Equal Education Law Centre. Schools disregard the procedures set out in the Schools Act. In some cases, schools unlawfully threaten to withhold learner reports if parents do not sign an acknowledgement of debt for fees, even when they may be entitled to a fee exemption.
The schools’ continuous disregard of the procedures set out in law may be attributed to a lack of accountability. As it stands, the law does not require schools to account to provincial departments of Education about the enforcement of fees against defaulting parents. And the departments are not required to monitor the enforcement of fees against defaulting parents. Although provincial departments issue circulars from time to time to schools on fee exemptions, it is unclear whether follow ups are made by the departments to ascertain and ensure compliance with the procedure.
Unless parents can get legal assistance, it is unlikely that schools will be called to account for their failure to comply with legislation. As with our client, this problem disproportionately affects poor and uneducated parents who are sometimes not even aware of their right to fee exemption.
It may be necessary to introduce mechanisms requiring schools to report on their compliance or to consider penalties for non-compliance. Debt collectors also have a responsibility to ensure that the law is not disregarded.
Certain information in this article has been deliberately omitted for purposes of confidentiality.
Sipho Mzakwe is a first year Candidate Attorney at Equal Education Law Centre.