School fees: Must I pay it during lockdown?

by | May 15, 2020 | Personal Finance

One of the most frequently asked questions during the COVID-19 lockdown is about school fees. Must still pay it, even if my child is not attending school right now?

Very few households in South Africa — and even around the world — remain financially unaffected by the coronavirus. Companies have closed, retrenchments have taken place, salaries have been cut and many are struggling to simply survive.

As a result, people question whether they should be paying school fees. Schools have been closed for nearly two months — even though online learning is taking place in many instances. The parents who are questioning the payment are not doing so because they don’t want to pay. They are asking because they literally can no longer afford to pay it.


What if I can’t afford to pay school fees?


Like with everything financial right now, the very best thing to do when your financial circumstances change is to communicate about it. If you cannot afford to pay school fees during lockdown, you are eligible for a payment exemption. Unfortunately, you won’t get one unless you speak to your child’s school and ask for one.


What is a fees exemption?

According to Section 40 of the South African Schools Act, a parent is liable to pay school fees unless he or she has been exempted. Exempted parents do not have to pay any fees or can pay less, depending on their personal and financial circumstances.


Does this apply to the national coronavirus lockdown?

It does. Brian Schreuder, from the Western Cape Education Department, said in a statement: “We are aware that many families will suffer income losses during this period and remind them that there is an option to apply for fee exemption when schools return.”


How to apply for a school fees exemption


If you need to apply for an exemption, get an application form from your child’s school as soon as it opens. The school cannot refuse your request for an application form, whatever your circumstances. Note: You can also download the form from your provincial Department of Education’s website.

All application forms for fee exemptions, and the supporting documents required, must be submitted at the school offices. The School Governing Body then has to review and approve or reject each application. If the school is unable to assist you, you can apply at your provincial education department.

Tip: Always make a second copy of the entire application and ensure that it is date stamped and/or signed on the day you hand in your original form. This way, if anything happens to the original forms, you will have proof that you have applied.

Example of school fees exemption application form

Example of 2 pages from the school fees exemption application form


Do I qualify for a school fees exemption?


There are different types of fee exemptions. Which you qualify for depends on your child, the cost of the school fees, you and your partner’s total income, and your financial circumstances. Here’s a breakdown for each type of exemption:


1. Automatic Exemption

Some learners are automatically exempt from paying. These include:

  • Orphans in an orphanage or child-headed household
  • Learners with foster parents
  • Learners in youth care centres
  • Learners in the care of a family member
  • Learners whose parents receive a social grant in their name, such as a child support grant


2. Full Exemption

You will also be entitled to a full exemption and will NOT have to pay school fees, if the fees of any one child or all of your children together is 10% or more of your total income.


3. Partial Exemption

Parents can apply for partial exemption if the fees represent between 2% and 10% of their annual salary, depending on the number of children they have at a fee-paying, public school.

Parent with less money for school fees

A partial school fees exemption allows you to pay less.


4. Conditional Exemption

Some circumstances are simply beyond a parent’s control. If you cannot pay fees due to extreme personal reasons, you could qualify for a conditional exemption. This applies particularly to parents who qualify for a partial exemption.

However, if a parent is not eligible for an exemption, but has enough evidence that their current financial circumstances have rendered them unable to pay school fees, a conditional exemption will be considered.


5. No Exemption

Unfortunately, not everyone who applies will get an exemption. Where the combined annual gross income of both parents is more than 30 times the yearly school fees per learner, the child will not qualify for any exemption.


Single parents and school fees


In a Supreme Court of Appeal Court case, the Western Cape Education Department and another versus the Women’s Legal Centre representing Amicus Curiae in December 2017, it was found that a single parent could and should be given a school fee exemption.

This relates to a mother who had applied for an exemption. At the time, the school her child attended wanted both her and her estranged husband to fill in the application form for exemption, because they constituted a family unit — even though the mother had custody of the child.

The Supreme Court of Appeal judgement made it clear that in circumstances where one parent has refused or failed to provide their income details, public schools shall grant a conditional fee exemption to the parent who has custody of the child.

Therefore, single parents no longer need their ex-spouses to qualify for a school fees exemption for children who they have custody of. Only the income of the parent who applies will be taken into regard.


The effect of not paying school fees


If you can afford to keep paying school fees, it is recommended that you do so. Not paying has a disastrous ripple effect — which in South Africa’s case could end up seeing over 100 000 people in Governing Body posts lose their jobs.

While teachers employed by the Department of Education are being paid in full during lockdown, your school fees are used to pay School Governing Body (SGB) teachers and support personnel.

It is also important to note that schools can take legal action against the parents who owe school fees and who do not qualify for an exemption.

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