Non-Payment of Fees in Private Schools

The Constitution establishes two types of schools: public and independent schools.  According to the Constitution, independent schools must operate at their own cost, while public schools are funded by the State.  This means that all the facilities, resources and services of an independent school must be paid for by the school.  Fees are the primary, if not the only, income for independent schools that they use to offer quality educational service to their students.

Defaulting parents pose a very real sustainability risk for the independently-funded school yet are quick to argue for the ‘rights of the child’ and blame the school, ironically, and not themselves, for ‘denying the child an education’.  The responsibility to provide basic education is carried by the State and not independent schools.

It should be noted that remunerating educators remains the primary expense for independent schools, accounting for 60% to 70% of a school’s budget.  Consequently, if parents neglect to pay fees for their children’s education, the school, in turn, cannot pay the educators responsible for that education.  One could hardly expect people to attend work who did not receive a reliable salary.

Furthermore, an obligation to pay independent school fees is never foisted upon unwilling parents.  Parents seek out, apply for and sign a contract that outlines their responsibility to pay school fees to an independent school.  Sending one’s children to an independent school is a choice, not an obligation.

In addition, other educational options exist.  There is a wide range of quality schools, both independent and public, with an equally diverse fee requirement.  This means that parents can find a school that best meets their needs and falls within their means.  The concept of informed choice was one of the findings of the Pietermaritzburg High Court in the St Charles College v Du Hequet de Rauville and others case.

Non-payment of independent school fees is a breach of contractual obligations by the signatory and is enforceable by law.  Judge President Jappie clearly stipulated that there is no legislative provision that precludes an independent school from attaching the immovable property of parents who are in debt to the school and, therefore, immovable property was declared executable for the purpose of enforcement of the payment of outstanding school fees.  Parents who elect to send their child to an independent school must be aware that defaulting on school fees could result in the loss of property at execution.

No school excludes a learner as a first resort.  It is, almost invariably, a desperate last act.  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.  Countless calls are made; emails and letters are sent.  But when parents do not communicate with a school, yet keep sending their child to the premises, they knowingly place their child in an awkward situation seemingly without concern for the child’s discomfort.  Yet these same parents are quick to accuse the school of being ‘unkind’ to a child for excluding them from (unpaid for) classes.  If anything, schools are excessively mindful of the feelings and needs of the learner and many times, schools will wait patiently for some payment to be made.  Often in vain.

Schools are very aware of the current economic environment as they work to balance their own books.  Parents experiencing difficulty paying school fees, due to a transient cash-flow problem, should not delay in telling their child’s school before debts accumulate so that it might be possible to structure their payments, for a limited period, to ease the burden.  However, if parental financial difficulties persist, they should urgently explore more affordable schooling options for their child.

This opinion piece, by Executive Director Lebogang Montjane, first appeared in the Sunday Tribune on 17 September 2017.

Please note important information regarding the Constitutional Court judgement that occured subsequent to this article.

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