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School fees and your rights
Tue, 22 Jan 2008 14:49
Knowing his rights helped Osmond Mongake* finish matric after a five year struggle, alongside his mother Sanele, for school fees exemption. Mr Mongake finally matriculated last year after years of arguing his rights to a free education at a local high school due to his mother’s inability to make school fee payments. Ms Mongake, a domestic worker, could not afford the school fees of R7 000 per year. In June 2005, she approached the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University in Johannesburg for assistance with her application for school fees exemption.
The Centre has been providing legal advice and legal assistance to poor parents and learners on school fees matters since 2002.
“At this time of the year, some poor parents and learners often find themselves facing issues pertaining to non-admission, debt collection activity and the withholding of report cards due to unpaid school fees,” said Phillipa Tucker from CALS.
Ms Tucker said Ms Mongake qualified for a full exemption and should not have had to pay any school fees.
According to Ms Tucker, it is illegal to charge any school fees for a pupil who is registered at a "No-fees" school (these represent 40% of South African schools), an orphan, or in an orphanage, has a foster parent, has been placed in a youth care centre or a place of safety.
She said it was also illegal to charge any school fees for a pupil who had been placed in the care of a family member (kinship caregiver), a child who heads a household or is part of a child headed household, or whose parent receives a social grant on behalf of the same pupil like a child support grant.
Several attempts in 2005 to submit an application for fees exemption to an administrator at Mr Mongake’s high school were futile as the school’s administrator refused to accept it.
Ms Mongake approached CALS again in December that year and asked them to intervene as the school wanted to withhold her son’s progress report and threatened to deny him the opportunity to register for 2006.
The school also threatened to put a new pupil on the waiting list in Mr Mongake’s place if she did not come up with the full amount before registration. It further threatened to hand Ms Mongake over to the lawyers and blacklist her without notice.
The school’s attempts to collect fees from Ms Mongake in January 2006 were unsuccessful. Instead she was more determined to apply for an exemption from payment of fees.
She said although it was a struggle to get the application form from the school, she was finally granted a partial exemption, calling it a "partial bursary".
Ms Tucker said a “partial bursary” was a misleading term that many schools use to trick parents into thinking that they still have to pay some school fees and that the school is granting them a favour.
An intervention by CALS ensured that Ms Mongake did not have to pay the fees.
On trying again to apply for an exemption in January last year, the administrator told her that it was "unfair" and "greedy" of her to apply again.
CALS vigorously opposed the school's actions and promised to continue assisting Ms Mongake as long as the school would not abide by the law.
Ms Mongake’s employer, Stacey Shipman* recalls an incident late last year when a member of the School Governing Body arrived at Mongake’s place of work and asked to be allowed in to discuss fees as he was going around collecting payments.
"He was basically debt-collecting," said Ms Shipman adding that the administrator had previously made "derogatory and racist remarks". The two women warned him that they knew their rights and that he should leave.
CALS said these actions were illegal as no learner may be turned away from a public school or prevented from getting their exam results because of non-payment of fees, according to the South African Schools Act (Act 84 of 1996).
Although Mr Mongake wrote his final exams last year - that was not the end of the five year battle between his family and the school.
This year, when Ms Mongake and her son went to the school to collect the documentation necessary to access his tertiary education, they were told that he could not get it until the school fees account was paid in full.
Ms Shipman and Ms Mongake, who are now well versed in their rights, felt knowledgeable and confident enough to discuss the issue with the school themselves before CALS could step in.
It transpired that the staff at the school has never fully understood the law or agreed to abide by it. Mr Mongake is now waiting to see if he will get his Senior Certificate.
Ms Tucker said that CALS deals with such queries on an ongoing basis where school staff members frequently prohibit children from accessing school at the start of every new school year.
Often when the principal understands the law and is willing to allow non-paying learners into the school, teachers do not allow the child into their class, said Ms Tucker.
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