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60% Of Private Schools Risk Closing Down Due To Financial Challenges, Non-payment Of School Fees By Parents

CHARLES MOLELE and NYAKALLO TEFU

At least 60% of private schools risk closing down due to financial challenges, particularly as a result of non-payment of school fees by parents.

Associations and representatives of private schools told Inside Education this week that parents’ inability to pay school fees was becoming an imminent threat to independent schools across South Africa.

In an interview with Inside Education, Mandla Mthembu, chairman of National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations, confirmed claims that several schools were at the risk of closing down as a result of non-payment of school fees by parents, saying that in some cases subsidies have been paid by the Provincial Education Department (PED).

NAISA represents over 1 400 Independent schools in South Africa.

“Most independent schools have had to implement salary cuts sometimes of up to 50%. Others  have had to retrenched staff members as a result of reduced revenue and the fact that many parents have taken their children out of schools and signed them up with online programmes or have chosen to home educate their children. This has meant that school have had to restructure their staff capacity needs,” said Mthembu.

Mthembu said independent schools that are closing down were not closing because it no longer made business sense to continue operating but because they simply have no financial resources to provide education for the children under their care.

“The majority (+- 70%) of independent schools in South Africa are non-profit entities providing a public benefit activity,” said Mthembu.

“We need to correct the notion and perception that independent schools are all rich, well-to-do schools and they cater for white children in the majority. Such a perception is far from the truth and reality. The majority of independent schools were established to provide a service to communities where there was either a vacuum in the provisioning of basic education for local children or the existing schools in the area were not coping with numbers, hence the need for an extra school.”

Mthembu said the longer and deeper the financial squeeze, the harder it will be for schools to continue to operate efficiently. 

“Even as the closure of schools was being proposed we had schools telling us that if they were forced to close now they will not be able to reopen since there would be no funds to continue. If an independent school closes, their learners will need to be absorbed into the state or public school system,” Mthembu told Inside Education.

Asked to provide details about the number of schools already facing closure due to financial constraints, Mthembu said NAISA was currently collating information about this.

“Whilst we have not done any formal survey as such at this stage with regards to schools that have actually closed, we are aware of schools closing in Gauteng , KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, e.g. Bishop Bavin School in Bedfordview , Gauteng;  and Marne Ebersohn Academy in Limpopo and Pomeroy Christian School in Tugela Ferry in KZN,” he said.  

“Many teachers in the Independent Schools sector have had to face the harsh realities of retrenchment and pay cuts and going on for months without salaries.” 

Natalie Gross, national representative of the South African Montessori Association (SAMA), said 60% of the schools had said that they were on the last of their financial resources when pre-schools finally opened in July.

SAMA has 189 member schools. 

 “They are functioning from “hand-to-mouth” at the moment and are trying everything possible to keep their doors open,” said Gross.  

“Two schools said they were involved in taking children from schools around them that had closed. They reported that neighbouring schools that closed would phone the schools in their vicinity and ask them if they could take their children.”

Gross said every one of SAMA’s schools reported having some parents who have not paid fees at all, either due to their own financial constraints or simply not wanting to pay for services they deem to be “not rendered”, particularly with the pre-primary toddlers. 

“90% of schools have said they have had to offer discounts on fees to get parents to pay but payment of fees in general is at an all-time low around 20%,” said Gross. 

“Several reported that parents that already had bad debt, jumped on to using COVID as an excuse not to settle debts and pay further fees.”

The board of the Elkanah Christian School in Ventersburg in the Free State Province said the extent of the financial damages and losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic on its institution was far reaching.

The board said expenses not budgeted for has dug into their school’s budget as they have received no assistance from government regarding personal protection equipment (PPE).

“The consequences affect not only the school’s day to day running and management but also its teachers whose salaries and bonuses are in danger of being reduced or in worst case scenario cancelled. We plan to reduce our workforce in order to be able to continue,” said the board in a statement.

“We have tabled our losses of school fees below showing the impact of this pandemic on our parents and their abilities to pay school fees which in turn as you can see from the results affects the school and its members greatly.”

Eric Khumalo, principal of Christian Life Academy in Tweespruit, KwaZulu Natal, said the school has been affected financially by the COVID -19 pandemic, adding that from April until to date staff members have not received their salaries while electricity, water bills and other monthly expenses have not been paid.

“School fees received since the beginning of Lockdown is as follows: In April we received 20% , May 14% , June 11% and July 6% . Unfortunately, this has caused individuals financial stress,” said Khumalo.

Lebogang Montjane, chief executive officer of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, said private schools were going to close down in large numbers and retrench thousands of teachers due to the impact of COVID-19.

He said the parents’ inability to pay school fees was a major concern. 

“Teachers and staff members at private schools have had salary cuts of as high as 30%, while some have had salary freezes,” said Montjane.  

“Those teachers who come in on contract basis such as sports coaches may face retrenchments as contact sport is not permitted during the coronavirus.”

(COMPILED BY INSIDE EDUCATION STAFF)

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